Modern Thinking with Sauce on the Side Sunday, Dec 2 2012 

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Chef Boy-ardee

In the past week, much has been said about my appearance on Food Network’s Chopped and how I was the only woman, as either contestant or judge. I noticed, believe me.  Most of the side commentary hit the editing room floor, but there was not a lack of off-color jokes during the judging of the appetizer round. Put a platter of testicles in front of a man and he reverts to being an 8-year old.

gender symbols

Many folks were also surprised I was on a show with all restaurant chefs and not a special food writer’s episode. Interestingly enough, it’s pretty safe to say that a majority of restaurant chefs are men and the majority of food writers and cooking school teachers are women. I’ve seen sexism and experienced it first hand. I was once paid less than a man at a major position — and, I was working for a woman! I just try to do the best job I can and let my work speak for itself. It’s modern thinking. I certainly don’t believe that any appendages – other than a good set of hands – make someone a better cook.

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Chef James Beard?

If anything, I feel my not being a restaurateur has made things more challenging for me.  I’ve worked in restaurants, but it was never my passion. If I had a dollar for each time I answered the question, “what’s the name of your restaurant?”, I would be a very wealthy woman. I worked my way through culinary school by working in restaurants, but I never really wanted to own one. One of the greatest parts about being a culinary professional in today’s modern age is that there are so many choices. I have enormous respect for restaurant chefs. It’s hard work to make a living feeding people day in and day out. Yet, without intending to sound pompous, I feel like for the most part, I can cook clog to clog with anyone.  Of course there’s always more to learn. I am not saying I am the female Thomas Keller, but I certainly would not shrink from cooking for him or with him. I actually find the insinuation that I am somehow a lesser cook because I am a food writer slightly more insulting than any potential sexism.


I am a cook that became a writer. I find it ironic that James Beard, the American culinary icon, whose award is seen as the penultimate recognition of culinary prowess, was not a restaurant chef. James Beard was a food writer.

Sure, there are a lot of food writers that can’t cook like restaurant chefs. They know words, not execution. There are also some food writers that feel uncomfortable cooking with or in front of other people. Some food writers hate to teach cooking classes; I love it. I also relish the opportunity to cook with other cooks and chefs at events and for special book dinners, fundraisers, or as part of a food and wine festival. It’s outside of my day-to-day box and I like it. Maybe because it’s one of the few opportunities I have to show that I can do it, that I can cook with the “big boys” — which is also why embraced the challenge of Chopped.

sauces book cover

One of the elements that separates the men from the boys, so-to-speak, in cooking are sauces.  Home cooks rarely make sauces and trained cooks and chefs often do. A sauce can completely transform a dish.The saucier position in a French kitchen brigade is the highest of all the line cooks, just below the sous chef and chef. French chef Antoine Carême evolved an intricate methodology by which hundreds of sauces were classified under one of five “mother sauces”: Béchamel, Velouté, Espagnole; Hollandaise, and Tomate.

Carême devised this organization in the early 1800s and indeed, they are classics, but there is definitely room for something new! My friend and colleague Martha Holmberg has a new cookbook that is the answer. Modern Sauces: More than 150 Recipes for Every Cook, Every Day is a tool kit of incredible sauces for cooks to prepare at home. It’s “sauce-making for everyone.” She, too is a fellow LaVarenne alum and Anne Willan protege. Martha is also the former food editor for Fine Cooking magazine. True to form, the recipes are excellent and very clearly written. The book is receiving very high and deserved praise.

“Modern Sauces is my favorite book this year. It is destined to be a classic reference for the rest of my cooking life, on one of the most valuable but least understood facets of cooking: sauces. Martha Holmberg brings great intelligence and lucid writing and instructions to the important craft of sauces. She is both respectful of and illuminating about classic sauces, innovative in her thinking about contemporary sauces, and practical in terms of everyday cooking. This is a great book.” – Michael Ruhlman

The photography is by Ellen Silverman, the photographer for my 1st book, Bon Appétit, Y’all. Martha’s book is absolutely lovely in words, photos, and flavors. She’s done an excellent job of what good food writers strive to do, to teach people how to prepare restaurant quality, chef-inspired food at home. 

With a big wink and a nod, I’m sharing her recipe for a very home-style bread pudding with a very cheffy ginger caramel sauce. It’s the best of both worlds. Try it this holiday season for a simple dessert or as she suggests, give it a go it for an indulgent breakfast!

Bon Appétit, Y’all!

PS If you missed it, here’s a link to part of my appearance on Chopped – ice cream fiasco included. 😉

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Martha’s Buttery Apple Bread Pudding with Ginger Caramel Sauce
Serves 8

Challah or brioche makes a rich and tender pudding, and white artisanal loaves make a denser but still delicious pudding. You can serve this dessert warm from the oven or cold the next day, and it microwaves beautifully if you want to warm it up for breakfast.

1 pound bread such as challah, brioche or a rustic white artisanal loaf, crusts left on unless tough, cut into 1-inch cubes
2-1/2 cups half-and-half or whole milk
1 cup plus 2 teaspoons granulated sugar
3 large eggs
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Large pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
Pinch of kosher salt
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided, plus more for the pan
3 to 4 medium apples such as Braeburn, Pink Lady or Fuji (about 13/4 pounds), halved, cored, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch dice
Ginger Caramel Sauce, recipe below
1 cup crème fraîche

Arrange the bread in a single layer on a large rimmed baking sheet and leave it out on the counter overnight to dry out. (Or dry the bread in a 200-degree oven for about 30 minutes.)

Heat the oven to 325 degrees. In a large bowl, whisk together the half-and-half, 1 cup of the sugar, the eggs, vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt until the sugar is dissolved. Add the bread to the bowl and gently fold it into the custard. It will take some time for the bread to absorb all of the custard, so keep folding.

In a large frying pan, melt 4 tablespoons of the butter over medium-high heat. Add the apples and cook, shaking the pan frequently and flipping the apples once or twice, for about 2 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium and continue cooking, stirring frequently, until the apples are soft and beginning to brown, 5 to 6 minutes more.

Stir in the remaining 2 teaspoons sugar and continue to cook, stirring often, until the apples looks golden and yummy, another 2 to 3 minutes.

Transfer the apples to a large plate to cool. When they are barely warm, fold them into the bread and custard.

Lightly butter the bottom and sides of a 2-quart souffle dish or baking dish with high sides (you can use a shallower, wider dish, but you will need to shorten the cooking time). Transfer the bread-and-apple mixture to the dish, spreading it evenly. Cut the remaining 1 tablespoon butter into small pieces and dot the top of the pudding.

Bake the pudding until it is firm and no longer jiggly in the center and slightly puffed, 45 to 60 minutes. It can be hard to tell when the pudding is completely done, so if you have an instant-read thermometer, use it. It should register 160 degrees in the center.

Let the pudding cool briefly. Meanwhile, in a small bowl, whisk the creme fraiche to loosen it. Scoop portions of the warm pudding onto small plates or into little bowls. Garnish each serving with the caramel sauce, drizzling it in one direction over the top of the pudding. Then drizzle the creme fraiche in the other direction. Serve right away.

Ginger Caramel Sauce

1 cup heavy cream
1-1/2 tablespoons peeled and finely grated fresh ginger
1 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup water
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/8 teaspoon kosher salt

In a small, heavy saucepan, combine the cream and ginger and bring just to a simmer over medium-high heat. Remove from the heat and let the cream infuse for 20 to 30 minutes. Taste the cream, and if it isn’t gingery enough, let it sit for another few minutes. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve into a bowl, pressing gently on the solids to extract the ginger flavor (press too hard and the cream will have a vegetal taste).

In a medium, heavy saucepan, combine the sugar and water and bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring just until the sugar is moistened. Let the mixture boil, without stirring but with an occasional swirl of the pan, until it is a deep amber, smells like caramel, and you can see just the tiniest wisps of smoke, 9 to 12 minutes. The caramel will be very hot at this point. Remove the saucepan from the heat and carefully add a little bit of the ginger-infused cream; the caramel will bubble up furiously.

Return the pan to low heat and whisk in the remaining cream a little at a time (to avoid bubbling over), then whisk in the butter and salt. Continue to whisk until the sauce is very smooth, another minute or so. Remove the pan from the heat and let the sauce cool in the pan; it will thicken as it cools. Serve warm or at room temperature.

— From “Modern Sauces” by Martha Holmberg (Chronicle Books, $35)

Please be nice. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without permission is prohibited. Feel free to excerpt and link, just give credit where credit is due and send folks to my website, Thanks so much.

Copyright © 2012 Virginia Willis Culinary Productions, LLC.

SPOILER ALERT: Chopped, Nuts, & Ice Cream Fiascos Wednesday, Nov 28 2012 


Nuts. There’s the whole nuts thing to begin with… I know you’re glad those are pecans featured in the photo above and not the other!

Ok, before I get started with all that – thanks for reading, thanks for watching, and thanks for your support. Since I announced that I would be appearing on Chopped, I have had so many notes and emails of encouragement. It’s been incredible humbling. It has touched me more than I could ever express. I’ve read the posts on Facebook about being carried into the winner’s circle and how folks just knew I’d won.

I knew the results.

I knew I didn’t win, I knew I had been chopped, but I was still proud. Of course I was disappointed; I wanted to win. But, you know what? I may not have won, but I didn’t fail.

There’s a lot to be said for that. Originally, I wasn’t entirely convinced I wanted to even participate. On one hand, I like watching the show and appreciate the entertainment factor. On the other? I am weary of fighting food. How weird can the ingredients be? How fast can food be prepared? How many can be served at once? How much can be eaten at once? Those concepts are pretty far from my food and cooking philosophies, which primarily involve refined Southern cuisine, using sustainable food, and classic French technique.

The deal is: I love to cook! Chopped was a challenge. I’m not a restaurateur and yet I know I can cook! I wanted to see if I could do it. I also recognize it takes a lot of nerve to go on national television in front of millions of people and possibly fail. I had a 75% chance of failure – and a 25% chance of success.

There’s an expression I use with myself quite a bit, “If you try, you might fail, but you are guaranteed to fail if you don’t try.”

It was an honor to make it through the try-outs and tests just to even have a chance at being a Chopped champion. I made errors, things I know better than to do. I second -guessed myself on a few things and of course knew not to do others, as well. Hindsight is 20/20. I’ve replayed those thoughts and choices again and again. My competitors were very well-qualified opponents but, no one is prepared for the strange ingredients offered up in those baskets on Chopped.

Lamb balls? Seriously? Lamb balls and coffee? Chickpea flour and raspberries? Whoa. I’ll just tell you one thing, an armchair quarterback is an easier place to be! It was hot as blue blazes in that kitchen. There’s no space to put anything. The dishes are on one side of the enormous set and the ingredients are on the other. I just remember muttering repeatedly, “I can do this, I can do this.”

That ding dang ice cream fiasco was nearly the death of me.

I’m not used to industrial restaurant equipment. The whole idea that I even pulled off using the anti-griddle is flat out hilarious to me. Me, of all cooks, successfully using a high-tech piece of equipment from kitchens which often feature molecular gastronomy, seemed ludicrous. In my kitchen, I focus on teaching people how to make chef-inspired food at home with equipment and ingredients available at your local cookware store.

Did you see that fork get sucked up into the ice cream machine like a tornado? Oh Lordy Mercy. I wanted to die, but I never, ever, ever thought about quitting.

I almost made it. “Almost” is rarely good enough for me. “Almost” doesn’t cut it – yet, somehow I am satisfied. Well, almost…. The main thing is that I didn’t give up. I know I am a damn good cook.

And, you know what? I’d do it again in an absolute heartbeat.

Special, special thanks to The Lisa Ekus Group, my trainers Sally Ekus and Debi Loftis, and the amazing folks at The Cook’s Warehouse, especially Matthew Hott, for their amazing support.

I am given much and feel incredibly blessed and thankful. I volunteer with Georgia Cooking Matters, the Atlanta Community Food Bank, and Tonight we’ve promoted #LetsChopHunger. As we consider what it means to have food for entertainment, please also consider donating or volunteering for an organization that helps folks with hunger issues. To those that much is given, much is expected. Let’s share the love.

Lastly, many, many congratulations to Tabb Singleton for his amazing victory. I am so happy and proud for his very well-deserved win. Bravo, chef.

In honor of my ice cream fiasco I am sharing a recipe for CHOPPED NUT ICE CREAM!

Bon Appétit, Y’all!

Chopped Nuts Ice Cream
Makes 1 quart

8 ounces bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
1 1/2 cups light cream
1 tablespoon cocoa powder
1 cup 2% or whole milk
1/4 cup strong brewed coffee
4 large egg yolks
1/3 cup sugar
1/2 cup chopped nuts such as pecans, almonds, pistachios, or walnuts

To prepare an ice bath, fill a large bowl halfway with ice cubes; toss kosher salt generously among the cubes, and add a bit of water. Set aside.

Place the chocolate in a large heatproof bowl. Bring 1/2 cup of the cream to a simmer. Pour the cream over the chocolate.

Let it sit for several minutes, then slowly stir the cream into the chocolate. Once it’s smooth, add the cocoa powder to the chocolate cream. Set aside.

Heat the milk and remaining 1/2 cup of cream to a simmer in a saucepan. In a bowl, blend together the egg yolks, sugar, and a pinch of salt with a wooden spoon until thick and light, being careful not to make the mixture foamy.

Whisk in half the hot milk, then whisk the mixture back into the remaining milk. Heat gently, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon. Add the coffee.

Continue stirring the custard until the mixture is thick enough to coat the back of the spoon and it reaches 180°F on an instant-read thermometer.

Remove from the heat and immediately strain into a bowl through a fine mesh sieve. Add the reserved chocolate mixture to the strained custard and stir to combine.

Place the mixture over the ice bath and chill until completely chilled.

Add the NUTS and the chilled custard into the bowl of an ice cream maker and churn according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

Enjoy, ’cause y’all this stuff is good!!

Please be nice. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without permission is prohibited. Feel free to excerpt and link, just give credit where credit is due and send folks to my website, Thanks so much.

Copyright © 2012 Virginia Willis Culinary Productions, LLC.

BIG NEWS! I’m going to be on Chopped! Thursday, Nov 1 2012 


I’m excited to announce that I’m going to be a chef-testant on Food Network’s  cooking competition show Chopped!! The episode premiers on November 27 at 10 pm EST/9 pm CT.  I am sooo excited. It was a fantastic experience — and really, really hard! No kidding, it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.

Take a moment and noodle on that for a second.

I started college when I was 16. I’ve worked for Martha Stewart, Anne Willan, Nora Pouillon, and Nathalie Dupree. I trained under French chefs in DC and in France. I worked in a 2 star Michelin kitchen where we cleaned the kitchen with rubbing alcohol on Saturday nights after 150 covers, just for kicks and giggles. I’ve slept on the dining room floor of a restaurant where I cooked between day and nighttime shifts because I was so exhausted. I’m a very hard worker — and yet, being a guest on Chopped was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. It was seriously intense.

“Chopped” is a top-rated competition cooking show that focuses on skill, speed, creativity, and execution. Chefs are challenged to create dishes that showcase their passion, cooking style, and culinary talent, all within a 30 minute deadline. The catch? We had to use mystery ingredients pulled out of a basket just seconds before we started cooking. In the past, contestants have pulled out items such as animal crackers, octopus, yucca, rice cakes, and Gummi Bears.

Believe me, I was wishing for gummi bears. You will not believe what we had to cook. Check out the press release to read more about it!

Of course, I can’t share anything I cooked on the show. In honor of weird, strange ingredients I’m going to share a recipe for one of the more normal things I can think of — Tomato Soup!

Remember to mark your calendars and save the date!
Watch Tuesday 11/27 at 10 pm  on Food Network!
Make sure to tune in and see if I survive the Chopping Block!

Bon Appétit, Y’all!

Mexican Tomato Soup

Serves 4 to 6

Well, it’s not really a super normal recipe – it’s a Mexican version. The key here is charring the tomatoes. Normally I would never suggest cooking fresh tomatoes out of season, but charring them really transforms their flavor.

2 medium Roma tomatoes, cored
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 onion, CHOPPED
2 garlic cloves
1 quart reduced-sodium fat-free chicken broth or homemade chicken stock
2 cups low-sodium tomato juice
1 bay leaf, preferably fresh
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon ground coriander
1/4 teaspoon ground red pepper
4 green onions, CHOPPED
1/2 cup fresh lime juice
1/4 cup CHOPPED fresh cilantro
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

Heat a cast iron skillet over high heat 2 minutes until it’s nuclear hot. Add the tomatoes, and cook, turning occasionally, 10 minutes or until charred on all sides. Transfer to a food processor.

Let the skillet cool down just a little. Add the oil and heat over medium heat until shimmering. Add the onion and cook until soft and translucent, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the whole (not CHOPPED!)  garlic and cook until fragrant, 45 to 60 seconds. Transfer onion mixture to food processor with tomatoes; process until smooth.

Transfer the tomato mixture to a Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, 5 minutes or until thickened. Stir in broth and tomato juice. Add bay leaf, cumin, coriander, and red pepper; bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low, and simmer, partially covered and stirring occasionally, 20 minutes. Discard the bay leaf. Stir in green onions, lime juice, and cilantro. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper. Ladle soup into warmed bowls and enjoy!

Please be nice. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without permission is prohibited. Feel free to excerpt and link, just give credit where credit is due and send folks to my website, Thanks so much.

Copyright © 2012 Virginia Willis Culinary Productions, LLC.

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