Mother’s Day: Spaghetti with Venison Bolognese Thursday, May 10 2012 

One of my fondest earlier memories is of my mother teaching me to swim. She floated on her back and I held to her ankles and kicked and kicked, my chubby little legs making more splash than headway. She then held underneath me so I’d learn to use my arms. She taught me how to hold my breath and swim underwater. That’s trust. That’s powerful trust. I never hesitated trying because Mama was there and told me I could do it.

There’s not much I haven’t tried because Mama has always been there. She instilled in me a belief in my ability. Recently, we were talking about me driving alone to DC to go to culinary school years ago. It never occurred to me that I couldn’t or that it was odd or dangerous. Mama told me how much it worried her, but she didn’t mention it at the time. I was surprised at myself that I had never ever considered how my antics might actually effect her. I’m a fairly altruistic and empathetic person, but my trust in her belief in my ability was so strong, that it never occurred to me she actually had any doubts.

The bedrock of our relationship is that we have always been good friends. I was always a bookish child and still seem to be. I was never one of the popular girls, so that means I wasn’t hanging out after school in high school with the others, I was at home with Mama.

We travel a lot together and have a silly amount of fun. It’s really incredible and I feel more blessed and fortunate that I could ever share. I’ll be asked to go teach a class or be in a festival and I’ll call her up and say, “Mama, let’s go.” She pretty much without fail will say yes and off we’ll go.

It’s not all work. We vacation together, a lot, too. We’ve tromped up winding stairwells in Greece and Italy, I got us lost looking for a farmer’s market in Turkey, looked for sea turtle nests in South Florida, goofed around at Rancho la Puerta in Mexico, where we were crying we were laughing so hard, when she was channeling her inner yogi. You can see from the smiles in these photos that we have a lot of fun.

A couple of months ago I asked her to join me in Savannah and she was a hesitant. She didn’t want to drive by herself on unfamiliar roads. We talked about it and I kept reassuring her she’d be okay. She continued to be unsure. I asked her if everything was okay, or was she experiencing memory loss or other kind of health issue. She wouldn’t really respond, but kept hemming and hawing. It made me scared. Very scared.

I’m slowly moving into that uncomfortable club that many folks enter in their 40s. I have friends whose parents are aging, some have become sick, some have passed away. Indeed, we’ve had our own scare. Mama had a surgery for breast cancer in 2003, but she’s been cancer free for nearly 10 years.

Finally, I told her we had to talk about it. I said that we couldn’t not talk about it.

We did and everything is fine. She’s okay, we just need to be aware that she’s aging. That same day I heard a report on NPR that elder drivers are disproportionately responsible for the amount of car accidents. It was good to hear and I needed that reminder. Mama’s always there for me. I can’t conceive of not having her in my life.

Thinking about losing my mama takes my breath away.

I am thankful beyond words for our friendship and relationship. I am thankful for her love, trust, and support. I am thankful for her presence in every last thing I do every last single day, because she taught me belief and trust.

Mama, I love YOU the Most. Thank you. Happy Mother’s Day.

Bon Appétit Y’all!
VA

Mama’s Spaghetti Bolognese with Venison

Serves 6 to 8

My family grew up eating spaghetti with a traditional meat sauce. Well, sort of. . . . The meat was ground venison from a deer Daddy shot, and Mama always added Dede’s homemade scuppernong wine. She also used a McCormick’s seasoning packet, still does. (In my version I add porcini mushrooms to bolster the flavor instead.) This was one of those rare meals mama didn’t make completely from scratch. And, I am not sure why, but she always broke the spaghetti noodles in half and cooked them far, far past al dente, more like “all done.”

I’ve enjoyed Bolognese in Rome, “gravy” in Jersey City, and even served marinara sauce to none other than Giuliano Hazan, but Mama’s “Southern-style” sauce is still one of my favorite dishes in the world. Food memories are precious things. The sense of smell, more so than any other sense, is intimately linked to the parts of the brain that process emotion. One whiff of this and I am immediately transported to my childhood. Buon appetito, y’all!

1 tablespoon pure olive oil

1 onion, preferably Vidalia, chopped

8 ounces white button mushrooms, sliced

2 cloves garlic, very finely chopped

2 pounds ground venison, or 1 pound ground round beef and 1 pound ground turkey

2 (28-ounce) cans crushed tomatoes

Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

½ ounce dried porcini mushrooms

¾ cup dry red wine

1 (16-ounce) package spaghetti

Heat the oil in a large saucepan or straight-sided skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onion and cook until translucent, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the mushrooms and sauté until the mushrooms are soft and all the liquid in the pan has evaporated, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, 45 to 60 seconds. Add the ground meat and crushed tomatoes. Season with salt and pepper. Using a wooden spoon, break up the meat into small chunks. Increase the heat and bring the mixture to a boil. Add the dried porcini and wine. Stir to combine. Decrease the heat to simmer and cook until thick, about 30 minutes. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper.

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook until al dente, about 10 minutes or according to package instructions.

Drain the spaghetti through a colander placed in a large serving bowl (to heat the bowl). Drain the water from the bowl and pat dry. Put the cooked spaghetti in the now-warmed bowl. Spoon over 1 large spoonful of the sauce and toss to coat. Spoon over several additional spoonfuls, depending on how many are at the table. Serve immediately.


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.

Happy Mother’s Day: Mama’s Pound Cake Friday, May 7 2010 

Any one that speaks to me more than a couple of paragraphs essentially knows I love my Mama. I am a Mama’s girl through and through. Mama and I have always been very good friends.

I was always a bookish child, curled up in a corner with a book, reading a book in the car, or hiding under the weeping willow tree with a book in my hand. Once when I was in elementary school the principal called mama in for a meeting because I was cutting class — cutting class and sneaking into the library. Mama didn’t think that was such a problem. A couple of years later just before summer break we were in the library choosing books for vacation. I was reading above my age and the librarian wanted me to read something more “age appropriate.” I vividly remember her telling me to stick to a certain children’s section for my summer reading, when what I really wanted to do was go over there to the hard back books. I wasn’t reading titillating teen material; I had started reading the classics. I was beginning to appreciate literature. Mama just let me choose what I wanted to read.

A bookish child turned into a bookish teenager. I was never part of the popular crowd. Didn’t kiss a boy until I was 16. Of course, that’s all more clear now, but the nut of it was, I wasn’t hanging out in the Dairy Queen parking lot with the other teens on Friday night. I was at home with Mama. Mama divorced my father when I was in high school, the summer between my junior and senior year. That same summer the private school I attended closed. I was 16. It was tumultuous. Mama and I leaned on each other and it was then that our “grown-up” friendship really started.

Instead of going to another school for my senior year I started college. I had to get my driver’s license so that I could live at home and drive to college. It just was the thing to do and I did it with Mama right there beside me. She never let on she was worried or that I couldn’t do it. She believed in me, if she had any hesitation about her sheltered bookish daughter starting college at 16, she never let on.

A lot has happened in my life since those big steps many years ago. I transferred to UGA and boy howdy, did my world open up. I went to England one summer for a couple of weeks and called her to ask if I could stay the summer. She said yes. I am sure she was scared to death, but if she had any hesitation, she never let on. After a few years of floundering around I wanted to go to culinary school. She supported my ambition and if she had any hesitation, she never let on. Later still, I wanted to move to France to learn and study. I was supposed to be there 3 months and was there for almost three years. If she had any hesitation, she never let on. Moving to New York City to be the kitchen director for Bobby Flay? Leaving that to work for Martha Stewart? Leaving a fantastic job with Martha to travel the world with Epicurious shooting stories about mustard in Dijon or pasta in Italy? We’ve traveled the world together, I’ve gotten her lost in Turkey, taken wrong turns in Paris, and we’ve trooped up many a tower stairwell in Italy.

If she had any hesitation, she never let on.

When I returned home to the South was another story. She “let on” how happy she was and I am very glad I returned. Life is good to me here. When you are young you can’t wait to get the hell out of Dodge and I found at least, when I got older I couldn’t wait to get the hell back. After 9/11 and being stuck in Manhattan as those towers burned and subsequently losing my job, I wanted to go home to Georgia and Mama. She’s been right beside me these past nearly ten years as my life has radically changed. My career has exploded. My book has significantly altered my life. My heart has also been hurt, I nearly cracked, quite frankly, and had to go away to the white beaches of Florida to heal. I am now experiencing a love like nothing I have ever known before and joyful in its beauty and all the while my Mama has been right there.

And, if she had any hesitation, she never let on.

I’ve always devoured books, still do. Words are magic to me. The fact that occasionally I can string together a couple and make a beautiful sentence or a moving phrase or an evocative thought thrills me. I love to cook, and as my life evolves and changes I realize I love writing almost as much. The fact that I can marry these two loves and pay my bills is a wonderful and wondrous thing.

And, that, like most of the wonderful and wondrous things in my life is as a result of the love and support of my wonderful and wondrous Mama.

I love you Mama.
Happy Mother’s Day.
I Love YOU the Most!
Gin

Meme’s and Mama’s Pound Cake
Makes one 10-inch cake

This cake has been a constant in my life and it has been my birthday cake many times. Our family holidays would not be complete without it. The best part is the crispy, dark-brown sugary edges. Much to my mother’s consternation, more than once, little pesky elves raided the opaque Tupperware cake container and nibbled away those tasty bits.

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus more for the pan
3 cups White Lily or other Southern all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
1 cup whole milk, at room temperature
5 large eggs, at room temperature
1 vanilla bean, split and scraped, or 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup solid vegetable shortening, preferably Crisco, at room temperature
3 cups sugar

Preheat the oven to 300°F. Generously grease a 16-cup (measure to the rim) bundt pan with butter. In a bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Set aside. In a large liquid measuring cup, combine the milk, eggs, and the scraped vanilla seeds. Set aside.

In the bowl of a heavy-duty mixer fitted with the paddle, cream together the 1 cup of butter, vegetable shortening, and sugar on medium speed until light and fluffy. Add the flour and milk mixtures to the butter mixture in 3 batches, alternating between dry and liquid, occasionally scraping down the sides of the mixing bowl, beginning and ending with the flour mixture. Fill the prepared pan with batter (it should be no more than two-thirds full).

Bake for 15 minutes. Increase the oven temperature to 325°F and bake an additional 45 minutes, or until the cake is golden brown and pulls away from the sides of the pan. Remove to a rack to cool for 10 minutes. Invert the cake onto the rack to cool completely.

This cake will stay moist in an airtight container for up to 1 week.

Fried Chicken: A Love Story Monday, May 4 2009 

Virginia and Meme

Fried Chicken: A Love Story
By Virginia Willis

I’ve been cooking as a professional for a little over 15 years, but my passion actually started when I wasn’t tall enough to reach the counter in my grandmother’s country kitchen. I called her Meme and she was the light of my life. My mother now lives in her home, the simple country house my grandfather hand-built over 60 years ago. The kitchen hasn’t really changed much. There never has been enough space for everything. The light still hums. Her recipes still are posted on the inside of the cabinet, some written directly on the wood. Her worn wooden-handled turning fork still hangs from the cabinet and her skillets and pans still hang on nails behind the door propped open with the same antique solid cast iron pressing iron.

She and I spent hours together in the kitchen. There are photos of me as young as 3 years old standing on a stool “helping”. I remember we’d roll out the biscuits and she’d let me make a handprint with the scraps of dough. The tiny fingers on my handprint biscuit would cook very dark in the heat of the oven, taking on a slightly bitter almost nutty taste. I know that’s where my love for cooking took root, working at her side on her linoleum countertop in the gentle breeze of the oscillating fan.

Oh, she could cook. Her pound cake was legendary. She’d wake in the early morning before the heat of the day and prepare fried chicken, buttermilk biscuits, old-fashioned butterbeans, creamed corn, okra and tomatoes. Fried chicken would be my hands-down choice for my last supper if I were “on the way to the chair”. Meme knew how much I loved it and spoiled me. When I lived far away and flew home to visit, it didn’t matter what time of the day or night I arrived—2:00 p.m. or 2:00 a.m.—she would be at the stove frying chicken to welcome me home. I was undeniably spoiled absolutely, positively rotten.

She was not the first bit shy about pretty much acknowledging me as a favorite grandchild. My cousin Gene was the male counterpart. He and I seemingly could do no wrong. However, she and my sister were oil and water, far too much alike to ever get along. She wasn’t exactly a twinkling eyed docile grandmother. She was formidable – a veritable force of nature. Before I was born, I was told she got tired of driving into town to go to church. Not going to church wasn’t an option. So, she had my grandfather donate the land and build a little country church.

My grandfather adored her and called her his better half. She would literally make the man take his shirt off so she could wash it. That never made a lick of sense to me. She would start on something and wouldn’t stop until her will was met. He’d mumble quietly under his breath, “Lawd, have mercy” but he would have moved a mountain range for her. My grandfather with his blue eyes twinkling said he always got the “last word”, and they were, “Yes, beloved.”

For as long as I can remember, they had a motor home, a camper. They drove as far South as the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico and the far end of the Alaska Highway. I was able to take several long trips with them when I was young. She had an even smaller kitchen, but she would still fry me chicken and we would stop at farmstands for fresh produce. Dede and I would hike and walk in the woods often bringing her buckets of wild berries and she would make cobbler.

Once the three of us drove north, through Detroit into Canada, east to Nova Scotia, and caught the ferry to Newfoundland. Not a small trip. To familiarize you with the roads of Newfoundland, imagine a squiggly horseshoe starting on one end of the island that zigzags and meanders to the other side. We were about halfway across the island when Meme looked at my Grandfather and said, “Sam, pull over in that gas station and turn around, I’m ready to go home.” He did, and we did.

The very last time I saw my grandmother was on Mother’s Day nine years ago. She had a sore throat, went to the doctor, and was diagnosed with cancer. She was 91 and quickly conceded defeat when she heard that ugly word. I thought my heart would break. I never knew anything could hurt so badly – I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I was living in New York and would fly home at least every other weekend to see her. When I returned to that simple country kitchen, our tables were turned, and I cooked for her. It was not fried chicken that I prepared, but soft, rich custards and creamy desserts that she loved.

The very cruel irony is that the cause of death listed on Meme’s death certificate is actually starvation, not cancer. The tumor prevented her from swallowing. A feeding tube would have been an inviolate injustice. Nine years later and there’s still hardly a day that goes by that I don’t think of her. To this day, the smell of chicken frying reaches into my soul. I often wish I could show her a copy of my cookbook and I so wish I could be in the kitchen with her just one more time.

Happy Mother’s Day, Meme.
Love you still.

Meme’s Fried Chicken and Gravy
Serves 4 to 6

1 (4-pound) chicken, cut into pieces
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more if needed
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 cups canola oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 cups chicken stock or low-fat, reduced-sodium chicken broth, or 1 cup milk plus 1 cup chicken stock or broth

Season the chicken generously with salt and pepper. Set aside. Place the flour in a shallow plate and season with cayenne, salt, and pepper. Set aside. Line a baking sheet or large plate with brown paper bags or several layers of paper towels.

Heat the oil in a large skillet, preferably cast iron, over medium-high heat until the temperature measures 375°F on a deep-fat thermometer.

Meanwhile, to fry the chicken, starting with the dark meat (since it takes longer to cook) and working one piece at a time, dredge the chicken in the seasoned flour, turning to coat. Shake to remove excess flour. Reserve any leftover seasoned flour for the gravy.

One piece at a time, slip the chicken into the hot fat without crowding; the fat should not quite cover the chicken. Adjust the heat as necessary to maintain the temperature at 375°F. At this stage, a splatter guard (a wire cover laid over the pan) may prove useful to contain the hot grease. The guard lets the steam escape, while allowing the chicken to brown nicely.

Fry the pieces, turning them once or twice, until the coating is a rich, golden brown on all sides, 10 to 14 minutes. Decrease the heat to medium-low and cover the skillet. Continue cooking until the chicken is cooked all the way through and the juices run clear when pricked with a knife, an additional 10 to 15 minutes. (An instant-read thermometer inserted into a thigh should register 170°F.) Remove the pieces and drain on the prepared baking sheet. (Do not hold the chicken in a warm oven; it will get soggy.)

To make the gravy, remove the skillet from the heat. Pour off most of the grease, leaving 2 to 3 tablespoons and any browned bits.

Decrease the heat to very low. Add the butter and cook until foaming. Add 4 tablespoons of the reserved seasoned flour and stir to combine. Cook, whisking constantly, until golden brown, 2 to 3 minutes. Whisk in the stock. Increase the heat to medium and bring to a boil. Cook, stirring often, until the gravy is smooth and thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Add more stock or water to achieve the correct consistency. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper.

PHOTO CREDIT: TERRY ALLEN

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