Awe, Gratitude, and Rooming with Julia Child Tuesday, Aug 14 2012 

L»R: Julia Child, Nathalie Dupree, and a young Virginia Willis

Meeting Julia Child

The first time I actually met Julia I was completely awestruck. My mentor Nathalie Dupree and I were attending a media breakfast event at Food Network. (The very, very first time doesn’t count. It was a booksigning and I was struck dumb and mute. I had to be nudged to take my newly signed book from her and then was escorted away. It was kind of embarrassing.) Anyway, after the breakfast I was in a pre-production meeting for Nathalie in the test kitchen and Julia poked her head in to say what a good job everyone had done on the breakfast and thanked all the cooks. I was so impressed at her gratitude. By that time I was working behind the scenes with quite a few other celebrity chefs and believe me, some of them were not that kind or gracious. Her polite kindness and professionalism really stuck with me.

After working for Nathalie, I left to apprentice with Anne Willan at LaVarenne in Burgundy, France. As if living and working in a 17th century French chateau weren’t life-changing enough – eating new foods, tasting new flavors, learning new cooking techniques – Julia Child would come to visit Anne for several weeks each summer. Seriously. Those were bizarre, surreal times. One moment I would casually say to her, “Ma’am, could you please pass the salad” or “Would you care for cream” as we stood in the kitchen drinking coffee. It was as normal as normal could be. The next moment I would be overcome by screams in my head of “OH MY GOSH, THAT’S JULIA CHILD!!!”

She was always kind, always polite, always interested in what we stagiares were doing. She always said thank you for the meal and our work. She would thank the caretaker, Monsieur Milbert, when they crossed paths in the morning as he dropped off the vegetables from the potager. (I am sure she wasn’t always a saint, but my high esteem for her had a great deal to do with why  I got sooo ticked off about the movie and wound up on the phone with ABC news.)

We cooked together several times over the weeks she was there, and that was one of the more rewarding experiences of my whole, entire life. After all, the primary reason I was in France to begin with was greatly the result of her books and influences on my mother, which deeply affected my thoughts and feelings on food and cooking, as well. LaVarenne, itself, was created at the encouragement of Julia Child. To say she was a “huge influence” on me does not remotely express the fullness and depth of it. And, she affected many, many lives. For all practical purposes, she started food television and was one of the biggest influencers of food and cooking of the 20th century. It was a true honor and pleasure to cook with her.

LaVarenne at the Greenbrier

Summer ended, my apprenticeship at LaVarenne led to a job and in winter I travelled stateside when Anne would go to the US for “LaVarenne at the Greenbrier.” One cold March I drove over from DC to West Virginia along winding mountain roads in freezing rain and snow to arrive long after dark. I was staying with Anne and her husband Mark in their cottage, yet when I entered, I {somewhat gleefully} realized they were still out at dinner. I was very tired and thought what luck! Anne and I can catch up on reviewing my work and recipe testing tomorrow morning. I quickly dozed off and shortly thereafter, I heard a loud “knock-knock” at my bedroom door.

Anne’s crisp English accent called out, “Virginia, are you there?”

I rubbed my eyes and {less gleefully} quickly changed from my pajamas for our meeting. Clearly, Anne didn’t want to wait as I did to discuss the recipe testing results of the previous week. Sigh. We sat around the coffee table and discussed the work. After our meeting, she began to hem and haw. It seemed she wanted to ask me something.

I was a bit grumpy at our late-night meeting and began to be concerned. Anne Willan is not one too hesitate, hem, or haw.

Finally, she slowly, carefully said, “Stephanie is going back to Boston and I’m wondering if you would mind staying with Julia?”

She asked me like it was a favor.

I nearly passed out, but somehow I kept it together and sputtered out a “Yes, ma’am.” The next moments are blurry and I’m not at all certain I slept that night. I wanted to do cartwheels down the mountain. I do know the next morning the bellman came and moved my belongings to a suite with wallpaper festooned with loud, garish pink rhododendrons the size of a dinner plate in typical Greenbrier fashion.

I was rooming with Julia Child.

I treated her just as I did my grandmother. I helped her get from point A to point B. I carried her books and papers, made sure she didn’t forget her cane. Late at night I escorted her back after the long fireside chats. It was incredible. She was always very nice, kind, polite, and very thankful for my assistance.

I don’t think my toes touched the ground for days.

In the next year or so we’d see each other at professional events and conferences. She was always mobbed with people. She was an absolute rock star, yet I never heard a cross word about her or her behavior. One event was a professional dinner in NYC while I was working for Epicurious. It was years after her guest appearance during my stint as Kitchen Director at Martha Stewart, even longer after LaVarenne and sharing a suite at the Greenbrier. My friend suggested I go over to her and say hello like all the others. I declined, I really just wanted her to be able to eat her dinner in peace. Finally, there was a bit of a lull in the adoration so I got up the gumption to go say hello. (Yes, I was still positively awestruck.)

Honestly, I didn’t know if she’d remember me. She met so many young doe-eyed girls just like me who somehow felt that she had saved their lives. I decided I might need to give her a hint, a point of reference. I walked over and re-introduced myself, “Julia, it’s “Anne Willan’s apprentice, Virginia, I am so sorry to bother you…”

In her great, warbly voice she interrupted me, “Yes, I know who you are, I was wondering why you hadn’t come over to say hello.” She then patted the seat beside her and I sat down to catch up. Once again, she was kind, interested, and polite.

Julia Child has long been an inspiration and will long continue to be for me and many others. It was an honor and pleasure to have made her acquaintance. I always endeavor to keep her professionalism and gratitude in my mind and heart.

In honor of the anniversary of her 100th birthday I’m sharing a recipe from Basic to Brilliant, Y’all for a traditional French vegetable salad, Salade Macedoine with my own Southern twist.

Bon Appétit, Y’all!

PS For those of you in New England, I’m at Odyssey Bookshop this Thursday August 16th with a demo, tasty samples, and signing.

Southern Salade Macédoine
Serves 4

Corn, butter beans, and green beans are summer staples in the south. Macédoine refers to a mixture of cut fruits or vegetables of different colors. The key in this salad is everything is cut about the same size. In classic French cooking, the use of an artichoke bottom as a garniture is termed châtelaine, also a term for the mistress of a château, indicating something very elegant. If you wanted to simplify, you could simply put the salade macedoine in a cored and scooped out tomato.

4 artichokes
4 cups water
2 lemons, halved
2 sprigs thyme
1 bay leaf, preferably fresh
2 ears fresh sweet corn, shucked and silk removed
1 cup freshly shelled butter beans (about 12 ounces unshelled) or thawed frozen butter beans or edamame
6 ounces green beans, ends trimmed and cut into 1/4-inch lengths (about 1 cup)
2 carrots, diced (about 1 cup)
½ cup mayonnaise
¼ cup chopped mixed fresh herbs (such as tarragon, flat-leaf parsley, and basil)
Coarse salt and freshly cracked black pepper
8 ounces mesclun salad greens

Using a sharp kitchen knife, trim all but an inch of the stem from 4 artichokes. Cut off the top two-thirds, leaving about 1½ inches at the base. Hold the artichoke upside down and pare away the leaves, leaving just the pale green center. Rub the cut surface with lemon juice to prevent discoloration. Holding the bottom in the palm of one hand, scoop out the fuzzy choke with a spoon. Place in a bowl of water with the juice of a lemon to reduce oxidation and browning until you are ready to cook.

To cook the hearts, heat 4 cups salted water in a heavy pot over medium-high heat to a gentle boil. Add 1 halved lemon, thyme, an bay leaf, and the prepared artichoke bottoms. Cover with a smaller lid or heatproof plate to weigh down and keep the bottoms submerged. Cook over medium heat until the hearts are tender when pierced with knife, about 30 minutes. Meanwhile, prepare an ice-water bath by filling a large bowl with ice and water. Line a plate with paper towels. Remove with a slotted spoon to the bowl of ice water to cool.

To cook the corn, bring 2nd pot of salted water to a rolling boil over high heat. Add the corn and cook until tender, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove with tongs to the ice water to cool and then transfer to the towel-lined plate to drain. (Do not drain the water from the pot, you will use it to cook the other vegetables.)

To cook the butter beans, add them to the simmering water and simmer until tender but not mushy, about 20 minutes. (Taste one and see how tender it is; the cooking time will depend on their freshness.) About 15 minutes into the cooking, add the green beans and carrots. Meanwhile, cut the corn kernels from the cobs and place in a large bowl.

Drain the vegetables well in a colander, and then set the colander with the vegetables in the ice-water bath (to set the color and stop the cooking), making sure the vegetables are submerged. Lift out of the water, shake well to remove the excess water, then transfer the vegetables to the bowl with the corn. Add the mayonnaise and herbs. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper.

Once the artichokes are cooled, remove and pat dry. Drizzle with pure olive oil and season with coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper. Place artichoke hearts on chilled serving plates, trimming if necessary so they sit flat. Top with the greens and a spoonful of the chilled vegetable mixture. Season with finishing salt and freshly ground pepper. Serve immediately.

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Photo credit Salade Macedoine: Helene Dujardin
Recipe adapted from Basic to Brilliant, Y’all

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.

This Week I’m Hosting Martha Stewart Living Radio! Monday, Jul 23 2012 

Greens, Gardening, & Grilling

Quick note to let you know I’m hosting Martha Stewart Living Radio this week at 3:00 pm EST.

Today, Monday July 23rd I’m with vegetarian cooking expert Nava Atlas, author of the awesome new book, Wild about Greens. I’ll also have BBQ Queen Judith Fertig on the line with her new book, The Gardener and the Grill. We’re talking about greens, gardening, and grilling!

Canning & Preserving

Wednesday is all about Preserving. I’ll be talking to canning expert Sherri Brooks Vinton, author of Put Em Up! We’ll review simple approachable ways to can and preserve that will help you put up some great summer produce.
I am also thrilled to be chatting with NY Times best-selling author Mark Kurlansky, who has written a biography on Clarence Birdseye. (Yep, that one, the man that essentially invented frozen food.) I am a huge fan of Mark’s work and am so excited to have the opportunity to interview him. His book Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World changed my life and how I consider seafood.

What’s HOT!

Friday is “What’s Hot”. There’s nothing much hotter right now than food trucks in the food world. I’m excited to have John T. Edge on the line talking about his new book The Truck Food Cookbook with recipes and great photographs by Angie Mosier.

When it’s hot I love nothing more than a ice-cold glass of tea. I’ll be joined by tea expert Bob Heiss, owner of Tea Trekker, one of the pre-eminent tea stores in the country and author of The Tea Enthusiast’s Handbook.

Please listen and call in with your questions! You can also follow or ask questions on twitter at @MarthaRadio and use the hashtag #CookingToday. It’s Martha Stewart Living Radio, channel SiriusXM 110. If you would like to listen in but do not have Sirius, you can sign up for a FREE 7 day trial!

Lastly, if you miss the 3 PM broadcast, you can catch the re-play at 6 PM or 10 PM EST.

Bon Appétit, Y’all!

Rise Up: Setting Goals & Peach Soufflés Thursday, Jul 28 2011 

NYC and Food52

This week I was in NYC and stopped by to see my friend and colleague Amanda Hesser. Amanda and I were at LaVarenne at the same time in the mid-90s. We were both editorial stagiares for Anne Willan. In school speak, Amanda would have been a “sophomore” when I was a “freshman.” It was great to see her. We also taped a segment for her website food52.

During the interview she asked me what all I did — I responded that everyday is completely different. Some days I am writing an article or testing recipes for a magazine or scheduling a cooking class. Other days I am food-styling for a photo shoot, or perhaps like today, puttering around on my blog. I might be consulting for a corporate client, planning a menu for a fundraising dinner, or working on pre-production for a TV shoot. My days are widely varied and I travel all the time, meeting new people, tasting new dishes, seeing new things. I love it.

Amanda then commented that it seemed I had the perfect food job. It struck me as interesting because last week I answered a series of questions for an interview and the journalist said pretty much the same thing.

Hmm….last I checked I thought Amanda had the perfect food job.

But, you know what? I think we just might share the title.

Open to Possibilities

I’ve been very fortunate regarding my experiences and who’s hired me – Nathalie Dupree, Bobby Flay, Anne Willan, Martha Stewart, Epicurious, Turner Broadcasting….

To be very clear, I am extremely thankful and incredibly blessed to get to do what I love and love what I do. I’m also not trying to brag or name-drop – those leads, jobs, and contacts didn’t, and still don’t, fall in my lap.

There’s no preferential treatment. I positively bristle at that suggestion. It’s unfair and rude. I love what I do, but I work hard. I set goals and put myself out there. Frankly, it’s all I know how to do and all I’ve ever done.

My attitude is that if you try, you might fail, but if you don’t try? You are certain to fail. When I was in culinary school my hand shot up first at the call for volunteers when it was time to strain the stock, clean the walk-in, or organize a messy jumble of pastry equipment. I felt that if I volunteered for the grunt work and did a good job that I would eventually be called upon to do something important.

Years later, I still have the same approach.

My first job cooking was as an unpaid apprentice for the taping of Nathalie Dupree’s TV cooking show on PBS. At the end of taping I asked if I could continue to apprentice. I did, and eventually Nathalie offered me a job. I knew I eventually wanted to go to France to learn, study, and eat. I set my goal to work as an stagière (French for unpaid apprentice) for Anne at LaVarenne. I wanted to learn more about the editorial process. After a series of interviews and recommendations, I was accepted and off I went. Amanda and I worked side by side in the LaVarenne kitchen, making jam and cooking dinner for 20 at the same time. I apprenticed for several months and eventually Anne offered me a job. I was meant to be there for 3 months and I was there for 3 years.

Several years later, I started the process of trying to get my foot in the door at Martha Stewart. It took me over a year to get an interview, but eventually I was able to trail for a day, that time-honored tradition of working in a kitchen “trailing” a lead cook. It’s where the rubber hits the road. A paper resume only means so much in a working kitchen. You’ve got to know how to cook.

In 2002, when I knew I was intended to move from NYC, I started the process of trying to get on at Turner Broadcasting. I moved South, but it took me nearly 3 years to get an interview at Turner. I persistently wrote gentle inquiries every 3 months and finally, nearly 3 years later, I was offered a job. In the meanwhile, it took me nearly the same amount of time to get Susan Puckett at the Atlanta Journal Constitution to let me write for her, but I did and it was one of the many steps that lead to writing my first cookbook.

It’s all about setting goals and putting myself out there, and yes, fierce determination and patience are also key.

It’s also important to remember it’s not always about the big name. I try my absolute best to respond just as quickly to the local PTA newsletter interview request as I do to a text message from the reporter at the New York Times. It’s the same principle as volunteering to strain the stock.

Rise Up

When I first went to France, one of my culinary goals was to learn to make soufflé. The first time I cooked a soufflé for Anne Willan, I opened the oven door to discover a lopsided disaster, something more like the tower of Pisa than le Tour Eiffel. I set my goal to learn from the master, I cooked a soufflé once a week for months. It was brutal. We’d huddle at the oven, and she’d cleanly, crisply dissect the soufflé (and my technique) — the whites weren’t beaten enough, or I’d needed more butter to coat the dish, or it needed a pinch of salt.

Finally, I called her in to see what I’d hoped to be my triumph. I squirmed nervously as she tasted the puffy and golden brown soufflé. She nodded and proclaimed I’d finally done it.

I am often asked, “What advice would I give aspiring food writers?” My answer? Set goals and put yourself out there.

Today I want to share with you some basic soufflé techniques and a couple of recipes to help you set goals, rise up, and make soufflés in your kitchen and in your life. I hope you enjoy.

Before I sign off,  I feel compelled to tell you about a friend and colleague who’s rising up and working tremendously hard on a very personal goal. Sally, who never ran more than a lap 2 months ago, is running a marathon — yes, a marathon, 26 miles and 385 yards, in October, a mere 5 months after she started training.

At 3 1/2 years old Sally was diagnosed with leukemia. Now in her mid-twenties, as a cancer survivor she’s raising money for Team In Training, and organization that helps raise money towards cures for blood cancers like leukemia — the No. #1 disease killer of children. Participants in Team in Training such as Sally, raise money for research and the support of cancer patients and their families. Sally set her goal to raise 10K and she’s already over 3/4 of the way there in less than 2 weeks! Now, that’s setting a goal. I am in awe of her fierce determination, the very same determination that is one of the reasons she is alive today.

Please do what you can to help and click here to read Sally’s story and contribute to her efforts.

Thanks for listening.

Bon Appétit, Y’all!

Georgia Peach Soufflés

Serves 6

This soufflé uses the meringue method to rise, and the flavor is delicate and light.

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature, for the ramekins
2 to 3 peaches, peeled and sliced (about 2 cups)
Juice of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
7 large egg whites, at room temperature
1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
3/4 cup granulated sugar
Confectioners’ sugar, for sprinkling

Preheat the oven to 400ºF. Generously butter six 8-ounce ramekins. Set aside on a rimmed baking sheet.

In the work bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade, pulse the peaches until coarsely chopped. (The pieces should be no larger than 1/4 inch.) Remove 3/4 cup of the chopped peaches and place 2 tablespoons of them in each of the prepared ramekins. Set aside.

Add the lemon juice, vanilla extract, and a pinch of salt to the remaining chopped peaches in the bowl of the food processor. Process until very smooth and pureed. Transfer 1 cup of the peach puree to a bowl, discarding any remainder or reserve for another use, such as an ice cream topping or base for a smoothie. Set aside.

In the bowl of a heavy-duty mixer fitted with the whisk, beat the egg whites with a pinch of the salt on medium speed until foamy. Add about 1 tablespoon of the granulated sugar and beat on high speed until the whites hold soft peaks, 1 to 2 minutes. Slowly add the remaining granulated sugar and beat on high speed until the whites are glossy and hold stiff peaks when the whisk is lifted.

Add about a quarter of the beaten egg whites to the peach puree mixture and stir until well mixed. Pour this mixture over the remaining whites and fold them together as lightly as possible.

Spoon the mixture into the prepared soufflé ramekins (the mixture should come up to the top of each). Smooth the top with a metal spatula. Run your thumb around the inside rim of each dish, making a shallow channel around the edge of the batter. (This will help the soufflés rise up straight and tall.) Set the filled soufflé ramekins on the rimmed baking sheet.

Bake until puffed, golden, and gently set in the center, 8 to 10 minutes. Remove from the oven, sprinkle with confectioners’ sugar, and serve immediately.

Need more instruction? Check out me making Peach Soufflé with Lucinda Scala Quinn of Mad Hungry TV.

Basic Soufflé Techniques

Simplifying Soufflés

There are two basic kinds of baked soufflés: savory, which are served as a first course or a light meal, and sweet, which are served as desserts. The name itself originates from the French souffler, which means “to blow up.” It is controlling the “blowing up” that can be tricky. Simple baked soufflés are best served as a main-course lunch, light supper, or elegant starter, and of course, as the pièce de résistance for dessert.

Savory soufflés are composed of stiffly beaten egg whites and a flavored base made from a very thick, well-seasoned béchamel sauce. The sauce must be highly seasoned with flavorings and aromatics to compensate for the blandness of the egg whites. Baked dessert soufflés are made by one of two methods: preparing a flavored meringue by simply adding fruit purée or melted chocolate to a French or Swiss meringue or by preparing a flavored base of crème pâtissière (pastry cream) that performs similarly to the béchamel sauce. Dessert soufflés are very simple, since the sugar and chocolate help create a very stable foam.

Preparing the Soufflé Mold

The dish must also be well coated with softened (not melted), room temperature butter to insure the soufflé will climb the sides of the dish and not stick as the mixture rises and expands. Often when the mixture sticks, it will create a lopsided soufflé. To coat the dish, brush the inside of the soufflé mold with butter and place it in the refrigerator. As the butter chills and firms, you can very clearly see any spots you might have missed.

Properly beaten egg whites are the key to a masterful soufflé. While the soufflé is in the oven, the air trapped inside the egg whites expands, causing the soufflé to rise. Beating egg whites is quite simply incorporating air into the egg white foam. Very fresh eggs will produce a more stable foam. To create a stable foam, it is imperative that the whites must be absolutely free of any yolk or fat. Even a mere drop of yolk or fat will hinder the foam formation. The bowl and beaters must be spotlessly clean; use only glass or stainless steel bowls, as plastic bowls can retain a film of oil.
It is easier to separate eggs when they are cold and straight from the refrigerator; the whites and yolks are firmer and less likely to break. When separating eggs, crack one egg at a time into a cup, transferring each white to the mixing bowl only after it is successfully separated. There is nothing worse that ruining the entire batch on the last egg! Many soufflé recipes will call for 1 to 2 more whites than yolks to enhance the volume. Even though it is best to separate eggs when they are cold, egg whites will whip to greater volume when they have had a chance to warm slightly. To achieve this, let the egg whites stand at room temperature in the mixing bowl while you assemble the remaining ingredients. When ready to beat the whites, start slowly. In the clean metal bowl of a heavy-duty mixer fitted with the whisk beat the egg whites on low speed until foamy. Add a bit of cream of tartar or vinegar. Adding acid helps create a stable foam that will hold up until heat cooks the egg proteins and sets the soufflé.

After adding the acid, increase the speed to high and continue beating just until the whites are stiff, but not dry, and no longer slip when the bowl is tilted. (My mentor Nathalie Dupree used to hold the bowl upside down over my head to test whether I had properly whipped the whites!) If the whites are underbeaten, they won’t achieve full volume. If overbeaten, the whites will appear “rocky” and can’t hold air well because all of the bubbles are smashed. Rocky, overbeaten whites will not expand properly when heated. Sometimes beating in an additional egg white might bring back a batch of overbeaten whites.

How to Fold

Once you have gone to the trouble of putting all that air in the whites, it is important not to deflate the whites when mixing them with the soufflé base. Folding is folding, not stirring. Gentle folding is the key to maintaining volume. I sacrifice about a quarter of the beaten egg whites into the yolk mixture to lighten the yolk mixture before adding the rest of the whites. This helps blend the whites with the base and makes the real folding easier. Then add the remaining whites. Using a large rubber spatula, gradually combine the mixtures with a downward stroke into the bowl, continuing across the bottom, up the side, and over the top of the mixture. Come up through the center every few strokes and rotate the bowl often as you fold. You are bringing a bit of the soufflé mixture at the bottom of the bowl up and over the egg whites. Fold just until there are no streaks remaining. Then, gently pour the mixture into the prepared dish. Lastly, run your thumb around the inside rim of the dish, making a shallow trough around the edge of the batter. This will help the soufflés rise up straight and tall.

The soufflé treatise is reprinted from Bon Appétit, Y’all: Recipes and Stories from Three Generations of Southern Cooking (Ten Speed Press 2008).

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.