HOMECOMING: COTTON FIELDS AND GEORGIA ASPHALT Friday, Nov 18 2011 

The landscape of fiery, brilliant bursts of ochre, red, and yellow on the rolling hills around Atlanta slowly morphed into evergreen, tall loblolly pine, gnarly small leaf oaks, and bobbled sweet gum trees as I drove South this week to teach in Savannah.

Unseasonally temperate, even for South Georgia, the thermometer in the corner of the  rearview mirror read in the mid 80s as I crossed the fall line, the geological boundary about twenty miles wide that runs slightly northeast from Columbus across the middle of  the state. I clipped along at a steady pace further South into coastal tidal area, the savannah. I drove across aging concrete bridges stamped with mid-century dates that traversed rivers with vowel-ridden Native American names: Oconee. Ocmulgee. Ogeechee. The black waterways were bordered with knobby, lacy cypress forest and bottomland swamps.

Contemplative about some recent events – and a bit anxious because I was running late to teach a class for my dear friend and colleague Damon Fowler at Kitchenware Outfitters in Savannah –  the scenery pulled me out of my thoughts. As the tires beat in rhythm on the seams of the concrete below, I consciously recognized how much I love my home state and took more than a moment to wonder in its absolute beauty.

It’s a 4 plus hour drive from Atlanta, and eventually, I arrived.  Getting out of the truck I rolled my shoulders and shook off my long drive. Damon, knowing “mid-afternoon” for me coming down from Atlanta is actually closer to 4:30 pm, already had most of the work completed. We chatted and finished the last bit of prep; it was lovely. Folks started arriving. I said hello to friendly familiar faces and met new students. It was smooth sailing, everyone had a good time and enjoyed my food and stories.  The class was really wonderful.

It never fails to amaze me how much I enjoy teaching cooking.

The morning after class, I headed north back home, but started thinking about the fact it’s pecan harvest time, so decided to veer a bit west into middle Georgia, before heading north to Atlanta. I thought picking up some new crop pecans would be well worth my diversion.

Soon I was immersed in the sounds, sights, and smells of my childhood. I took a stop near Hawkinsville – actually, passed a roadside stand, turned around and went back – for a bag of Boiled Peanuts from the Hardy Family, recent recipients of the Ruth Fertel Keeper of the Flame Award by the Southern Foodways Alliance.

Windows cracked, the warm air whipped in as I slowed down from interstate driving to a more civilized pace. Relishing the salty, earthy peanuts, I negotiated the cracked asphalt through acres and acres, miles and miles of cotton. Alternating with the fields of cotton were pecan groves. The grey tree trunks stood solid as thin, bent and twisted branches reached towards the dusky sky. Butcher red dusty roads snaked between the fields and groves. A smile came to my face as I noticed the edge of the blacktop highway littered with puffs of cotton, like handfuls of snow. It’s mid-harvest still, so the rolling view was a combination of the familiar green and yellow  tractors pulling up the fields, dented red basket trailers full of picked cotton, and still, more breathtaking fields of brown, and whiter than white, bolls of cotton.

I was wrapped in the lifescape, the landscape of what I spent over half my life viewing. I found myself settling into my seat a bit softer. My grip on the wheel loosened. I felt the tension melt away from my shoulders. It seemed to flit out the window on the warm breeze. Bathed in a landscape of familiar autumn sights and colors, I realized I was feeling the enveloping, comforting emotion of coming home.

Odd thing is, I don’t live there anymore; I haven’t for over 25 years. Neither do Mama and Jona; they now live in Evans, Georgia near Augusta. I live in Atlanta. I know plenty that home is not always a simple concept. I’ve lived in over a dozen different places since I lived on a red dirt road on the edge of the “city” limits of Montezuma.  And, that agrarian beauty that was seducing me? I can guarantee I didn’t see a lick of that beauty when I was 16. I wanted to get far, far away from what I thought was pretty much the middle of nowhere.

I didn’t want to call nowhere home.

I’m older now. I now know home is a feeling. Home is a sense of place. Home is where you make it. Cliche as it may be, home is where the heart is.

Best wishes to you and your family in your home, wherever it may be, this Thanksgiving.

Bon Appétit, Y’all!
VA

Mama’s Reading List
(Click on the links for over a DOZEN Thanksgiving Recipes!)

  • Need a non-turkey nibble for watching the game this weekend? Check out with Project Foodie has to say about my Curried Chicken Wings with Peach Dipping Sauce.
  • I hope you enjoy my piece about Roasting in this month’s Eating Well magazine. The spread is absolutely splendid. Basic to Brilliant, fish to fowl, I offer roasting recipes for the holidays, including a vegetarian Stuffed Roast Pumpkin.
  • The Cooking Channel Blog interviews me on the new book, Thanksgiving, and being Southern. (Now if we could just talk about my TV show….)
  • USA Today  highlights regional Thanksgiving dishes and I was asked to represent the South!
  • See Wine Enthusiast Magazine’s beautiful spread on my Gracious Southern Thanksgiving (here for more recipes).
  • A full Thanksgiving menu in Taigan with Julia Reed.
  • I am THRILLED to have contributed the recipe of the month for Seafood Watch from the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Check out my Pan-Seared Georgia Trout with Pecan Brown Butter and Smoked Trout Salad.

Events and Classes 

  • I’ll be near Nashville Wednesday November 30 at the Viking Cooking School in Franklin, TN.
  • HOWDY TEXAS! December 5-10 teaching at Central Market. Click here to register for classes.
  • For a full and ever-changing list, visit the Events page on my website.
PS For you folks who haven’t yet had boiled peanuts, I am truly sorry. You should find some or make some, or order some online, sometime, that’s all I have to say. I love boiled peanuts. I used to take canned boiled peanuts with me when I lived in France. France. Think about it. Boiled peanuts in France.

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, virginiawillis.com. Thanks so much.

Summer Sunflower Celebration & Mustard Crusted Pork Loin Friday, Aug 14 2009 

Sunflower at Persimmon Creek

After the maelstrom of controversy my last post created about Julia/Julie and food writing, I think perhaps this week I need to go with soft, warm, and fuzzy. Something along the lines of sunflowers, baby lambs, and harvesting mint from a crystal clear burbling mountain stream.

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I still stand by what I wrote. It certainly stirred the proverbial pot. I was quoted, well really, I was misquoted, but (mis)quoted alongside Laura Shapiro and Judith Jones. If my grapes were as sour as some of those folks were suggesting over on gawker.com I would be able to talk my mouth would be so puckered. It was a pretty enlightening experience. But, let’s move forward.

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I was recently a guest chef at Persimmon Creek Winery in North Georgia owned by Sonny and Mary Ann Hardman. The setting is just beautiful. It was my sister’s birthday so she and my mother joined me for the weekend. They’ve recently built some beautiful cottages so one can stay on the property. We had a lovely time in the Sassafras cottage. To be clear, this was no rustic mountain cabin. The cottages are beautiful. The attention to detail was impressive. Sub zero fridge, gas stove, wine cooler (of course). The bathrooms are over the top, spa-like – the kind that makes you want to linger in the tub all day….. but I digress.

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When we arrived late afternoon on Friday, Mary Ann took us around the farm and vineyard. There are huge patches of sunflowers, heirloom corn, pumpkins for fall, and herds of dairy sheep. And, I think Mary Ann pretty much has her hands in most of it. She is one busy woman. While we were herding the sheep for milking – yes, she does that, too — she described her day. Mama, incredulous, finally asked her, “When do you sleep?”

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Then, I had a sheep milking education session. It’s not so easy. First, the ewe is positioned on the milking stand and her head is secured between two wooden bars. Mary Ann put a couple of scoops of food in the bowl. There’s a whole rhythmic movement that starts with grabbing the udder, pushing up, and the fanning your fingers and pulling down. I struggle with rhythm at the best of times, much less when confronted by the hind end of a sheep in a hot barn in July in Georgia. (I will say this – the barn is clean – no take-your-breath-away animal odors.)
Mary Ann says her hands are too small to milk two teats at once. I have serious, thick, working chefgirl hands and still couldn’t manage to get two going at once. But, I did have some success and it was very satisfying. A whole scant 3/4 cup of satisfaction.

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Saturday morning mama and I tromped around taking pictures before I had to start prepping and the sun rose too high. I like taking photos in the morning before the light is so harsh. The dew was still on the grapevines, the sunflowers were holding their heads high, and the bees were busily buzzing about. It was really glorious. We ran into Mary Ann who was herding the sheep for milking. I passed this time. I didn’t want to ruin my milkmaid memory with a poor sophomoric effort.

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Mary Ann had mentioned the creek flowed through the national forest before it coursed through their property and was clean enough to drink. Those of y’all that know me well know that I had to get in there to taste that cold mountain water. The minute she told me I knew I would. It was crystal clear, sparkling and beautiful. I tromped down the creekbank and was overcome with the scent of crushed mint. I see there was wild mint growing on the creek bank. I harvested some for dinner that night. Large dark evergreen sprigs with dark, almost purple stems.

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That experience triggered a thought. While Mama and I were walking around I also noticed purslane. Purslane is pretty much treated like a weed in the US, but it was grown as a garden lettuce at the potager for LaVarenne where I worked in France. Purslane is a low growing succulent herb. I also had noticed tangy wild sorrel growing on the slope near the house, as well. Now, I am not one of those foraging types that could survive in the wilderness with a pocket knife and a shard of broken glass to start a fire. (See cottage reference above for preferred lodging in the woods.) But, I was like a kid in the candy store foraging for herbs. It was beautiful. All the ingredients for the dinner came from the farm or from North Georgia.

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A few hours later, I was joined by my friend and colleague Joy Crump who drove up from Atlanta to help me for the day. Mid-afternoon Tasia Malakasis of Belle Chevre, an artisan goat cheese made in Alabama showed with a cooler of her amazing cheeses. It was a great, great day.

Here’s the menu.

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Wild Herb Salad tossed with Apple Cider Vinaigrette and topped with Panko-Crusted Fried Green Tomatoes and a disk of Tasia’s Montrachet goat cheese.

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Mustard Crusted Pork Loin on a Bed of Honey Roasted Vidalia Onions with Heirloom Vegetable Succotash

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Heirloom Stoneground Cornbread with Bacon

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Sheep’s Milk Panna Cotta with Blueberry Compote and topped with a Hearty Sprig of Persimmon Creek Mint

Bon Appetit, Y’all!

VA

Mustard-crusted Pork Loin with Herb Pan Sauce
Serves 4 to 6

3 large cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 bay leaf, preferably fresh
1/4 cup Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
1 (3-pound) boneless center-cut pork loin
1/2 cup yellow mustard seed
1/2 cup brown mustard seed
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons canola oil (optional)
2 shallots, finely chopped
1/2 cup dry white wine
11/2 cups chicken stock or low-fat, reduced-sodium chicken broth
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into pieces (optional)

To season the pork loin, combine the garlic, bay leaf, mustard, and thyme in a large bowl or sealable plastic bag. Add the meat and turn to coat evenly. Let rest at room temperature for 30 minutes, or refrigerate up to overnight, turning the pork occasionally.

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Place the mustard seeds on a baking sheet. Remove the meat from the bowl, season it with salt and pepper, and roll it in the mustard seed to coat evenly. Place the roast in a shallow roasting pan.

Roast until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the center of the meat registers 140° to 145°F, 1 hour to 1 hour and 15 minutes. The pork will be slightly pink in the center (this is desirable).

Remove from the oven and transfer the pork to a warm platter; cover loosely with aluminum foil and let rest for 10 to 15 minutes to let the juices redistribute (the internal temperature of the roast will rise to 150°F from carryover cooking).

Remove all but a couple of tablespoons of fat from the roasting pan and place the pan on the cooktop over medium heat. (If there is no fat, add 2 tablespoons of canola oil.) Add the shallots and saute, stirring frequently, until softened, about 2 minutes. Add the white wine and cook until reduced by half, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the chicken stock and increase the heat to high, scraping the skillet with a wooden spoon to loosen the browned bits.

Cook until the sauce is slightly reduced, an additional 5 minutes. Thinly slice the pork and transfer to a warmed serving platter. Pour any accumulated pork juices from the cutting board into the roasting pan and stir to combine; decrease the heat to medium. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper. To finish the sauce with butter, remove the skillet from the heat. Whisk in the butter one piece at a time. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper. Spoon the sauce over the pork slices; serve immediately.

VIRGINIA WILLIS CULINARY PRODUCTIONS, LLC © 2009

Adapted from Bon Appétit, Y’all: Recipes and Stories from Three Generations of Southern Cooking by Virginia Willis, copyright © 2008. Published by Ten Speed Press.

Hotter than Georgia Asphalt Tuesday, Jun 23 2009 

 

Yummy Brown Bits of Goodness

Spit Roasted Chicken

Ever heard the expression “hotter than Georgia asphalt?” Now, that’s hot. Cause let me tell you, black top asphalt cooking all day in the summer sun is pretty ding dang hot. Summer has officially started and it’s a sizzling 95 degrees at Mama’s house. The take your breathe away when you walk outside kind of heat. It always amuses me when people say it’s so hot because it’s humid in Georgia. Well, it’s hot because it’s 95 degrees! And, it’s early y’all. Triple digits for months are just around the corner.

For many years, my grandparents did not have air-conditioning. Can you imagine? We’re so spoiled now. Meme would stay up late the night before or wake up very early in the morning and work in the cool, quiet hours of the hot summer. The humming of the fan was often her only company before the house started stirring and the cousins started piling out of bunks and cots.

In the heat of the summer, there’s nothing better for keeping the heat out of the kitchen than firing up the grill. My grandfather used a potent vinegar bath on grilled chicken that produced a pungent, meaty odor, sending out billowing clouds of steam and smoke as the chicken cooked. I like to make a batch of the marinade and keep it in the refrigerator in the spritz bottle. It works well with pork chops, too.

The birds in the photo are spatchcocked and threaded on a spit. Spatchcocking is a technique used with small birds like Cornish hens, quail, or even small chickens by removing their backbone and spreading them open so that they are fairly flat. Besides making an intriguing presentation and simple to carve, a spatchcocked bird requires less time cooking, so the breast meat is more likely to be moist and tender.

To spatchcock a bird, place the bird on a clean cutting board, breast side down. Using poultry shears, make a lengthwise cut on both sides of the backbone from neck to tail. Remove the backbone and save it for stock. Open the bird like a book. Proceed with the recipe. For an especially flat bird, place the bird on a baking sheet, top with a second baking sheet and weigh it down with a brick or several large cans of tomatoes for several hours or overnight in the refrigerator.

Bon Appétit Y’all!
VA

Dede’s Barbecued Chicken
Serves 4 to 6

1/2 cup water
1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup peanut oil, plus more for the grate
2 tablespoons hot sauce
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon coarse salt, plus more for seasoning the chicken
1 (4 to 5-pound) chicken, cut into 8 pieces
Freshly ground black pepper

Prepare a charcoal fire using about 6 pounds of charcoal and burn until the coals are completely covered with a thin coating of light gray ash, 20 to 30 minutes. Spread the coals evenly over the grill bottom, position the grill rack above the coals, and heat until medium-hot (when you can hold your hand 5 inches above the grill surface for no longer than 3 or 4 seconds). Or, for a gas grill, turn on all burners to High, close the lid, and heat until very hot, 10 to 15 minutes.

Combine the water, vinegar, peanut oil, hot sauce, Worcestershire sauce, and salt in a squirt bottle. Set aside.

Season the chicken with salt and pepper. Apply some oil to the grill grate. Place the chicken on the grill, leaving plenty of space between each piece. Grill until seared, about 1 to 2 minutes per side for legs and thighs, and 3 or so minutes for breasts. Move the chicken to medium-low heat or reduce the heat to medium; continue to grill, turning occasionally and squirting with the marinade, until the juices run clear when pierced, 12 to 18 minutes. Remove the pieces from the grill as they cook and transfer to a warm platter. Give them a final squirt of sauce for flavor and serve immediately.

VIRGINIA WILLIS CULINARY PRODUCTIONS, LLC © 2009

Adapted from Bon Appétit, Y’all: Recipes and Stories from Three Generations of Southern Cooking by Virginia Willis, copyright © 2008. Published by Ten Speed Press.

SWEET GEORGIA PEACHES Thursday, Jun 11 2009 

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Central and South Georgia are well known for its peach crops in the summer and pecan harvests in the fall. I grew up in Macon County, adjacent to Peach County, home to The Big Peach, a 75′ tall peach mounted on a 100′ tall pole. Peaches are serious in Georgia.

Each summer the women of my family would make “put up peaches”. We’d can peaches, freeze peaches, and make peach jelly. You have never been hot until you have been picking peaches in the middle of a Georgia summer. Rumor has it that hell is cooler. The air is thick and stifling. Gnats and mosquitoes buzz about incessantly. Peach fuzz covers your arms and wrists. The combination of sweat, bug spray, and itchy peach fuzz is an effective blend for guaranteed misery. But, the end result is that each amber spoonful is more precious than gold.

Ripe peaches are soft to the touch. When cut, look for creamy gold to yellow flesh. The red or blush color on the skin is actually a characteristic of the variety, not ripeness. Avoid green or shriveled peaches. Use your nose! Choose peaches with a typical “peachy” scent, slightly sweet and flowery. Never squeeze peaches, as they will bruise. If your peach purchase needs ripening, set them in a single layer on the counter, not stacked, and allow them to ripen for a day or so at room temperature. Once ripe, transfer them to the refrigerator and use within a week.

Georgia produces over 130 million pounds of peaches a year. Some states may grow more, but Georgia is undoubtedly known as “The Peach State”, the result of the efforts of a farmer in Marshallville, Georgia, who bred the Elberta peach from the seed of a Chinese Cling peach in the late 1800s. The peach industry took off, Georgia was tagged with the flavorful nickname, and the rest is sweet history.

Just down the road from Marshallville is home to Al and Mary Pearson. The Pearson family has farmed peaches around Fort Valley, since the late 1800s and pecans, since the early 1900s. Al and Mary, recently joined by their son, 5th generation farmer, Lawton, have survived the tough business of farming by reinventing the family farm. Big Six Farm is the “growing” arm of the company, jointly owned by the Al and his sisters. Pearson Farm, which Al and Mary operate together, is the retail arm, selling both Big Six’s raw produce and products made from it.

According to Al, “Peach season starts for us around May 15 with the variety Flavorich, a clingstone peach and we ship through August with Big Red, a large freestone.” With clingstone peaches, as the name implies, the flesh clings to the stone while freestone peaches can be loosened from the pit with relative ease. Al continued, “In a good year one tree will produce between 100 and 150 pounds per tree. One acre of peach trees will produce 12,500-15,000 pounds.” (In light of Al’s statistics I don’t feel quite so bad about the few bushels I had a pick as a child!)

Peaches are packed with natural goodness. Several major nutrients, including vitamins A, C, and potassium are packed into each peach. Peaches are also a good source of the pigment beta-carotene, which gives them their deep yellow color. Beta carotene is a powerful antioxidant that may help slow the aging process and reduce the risk of some types of cancer.

They’re also an excellent and filling source of fiber. And, a plus for calorie counters, a peach contains less than 60 calories. In addition to being low-calorie, like all fruits and vegetables, peaches are cholesterol-free and contain no fat or protein. Peaches also provide natural plant compounds called flavonoids, powerful antioxidants, which research suggests may help prevent cancer and heart disease.

Typical Southern recipes do not often take advantage of the healthful aspects of peaches. They are more often along the lines of Peach Ice Cream laced with eggs and heavy cream, Fried Peach Pies, deep-fried half-moons of biscuit dough filled with sugar and chopped peaches, and buttery Peach Cobber, baked in a cast iron skillet.

Here’s one that marries the taste of those sweet peaches with pork, a marriage made in heaven!

Bon Appetit, Y’all!
VA

BROWN SUGAR PORK CHOPS WITH GEORGIA PEACH BBQ SAUCE
Serves 4

1/4 cup kosher salt
3/4 cup dark brown sugar
2 cups boiling water
3 cups ice cubes
4 bone-in pork loin chops, (about 1 1/2 to 2 pounds)
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 medium Vidalia onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1 one-inch piece ginger, peeled and grated
1 ½ cups ketchup
½ cup Georgia Peach jam
2 ripe peaches, peeled and cut into 3/4-inch chunks
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

In medium heatproof bowl, dissolve salt and sugar in boiling water, stir in ice cubes to cool. Add the pork chops, cover bowl with plastic wrap, and refrigerate to marinate, about 30 minutes. Remove from brine, rinse well, and dry thoroughly with paper towels.

Using a medium sauté pan over medium heat, add the oil. Add the onion and cook until translucent, about 2 minutes. Add the garlic and ginger and cook until fragrant, about 45 to 60 seconds.

Add the ketchup, peach jam, and peaches. Reduce heat to low and simmer until sauce thickens, about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add vinegar, season with salt and pepper. Remove from heat, set aside to cool.

Pour half the barbecue sauce into a shallow baking dish, reserve remaining sauce. Add pork chops, turning to coat both sides.

Prepare a medium-hot grill or grill pan. Grill chops until cooked through, about 5 minutes per side, basting chops with barbecue sauce. Remove from grill, let stand 5 minutes before serving. Serve with remaining sauce.

PHOTO CREDIT: ELLEN SILVERMAN

VIRGINIA WILLIS CULINARY PRODUCTIONS, LLC © 2009

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