Planting Gardens & Being Thankful: Beet Red Velvet Cupcakes Thursday, Apr 19 2012 

This week I kicked off chefs cooking at the at the Atlanta Botanical Garden in their awesome outdoor kitchen. It’s a lovely space and Atlanta is fortunate to have such an amazing garden. If you are a resident or a tourist, you should make sure to pay a visit when time allows. It’s spectacular.

The class was planned months ago, but happily we were able to use about 80% ingredients from the garden. It’s always a gamble, it is after all, farming, but the weather cooperated. The menu was Cream of Spring Greens Soup, Pea and Lettuce Risotto, Fennel Slaw, and Pecan Crusted Trout. For dessert, I made Beet Red Velvet Cupcakes. Other than the trout, all the recipes were newly created for the class. I wanted something special to start the season. An homage, of sorts, to the birth of Spring.

Several climate zones North of Atlanta I’m working on a garden for this summer in New England. Hay and sheeting still cover the rows, but it’s almost ready to be unwrapped. Being in the beauty of the gardens in Atlanta has given me great inspiration. Gardening is so powerful and full of life. Dirt is alive!

If Spring is an infant, Summer moves from toddler to teenager, and quickly. First there are small plants with clumsy, crooked stems then there are these powerful full fledged beings bursting with energy. But not yet, now there are dozens of seedlings in starter pots and biodegradable cups. Babies. They need watering or misting daily.

It’s just not in my skill set.

I do pretty good once the plants hit the great outdoors, but while still inside, they are too close to house plants. I am not so good with house plants. I can barely keep alive “pathos” which could likely survive nuclear winter and Saharan-like drought. What’s funny to me is that the lack of desire to spritz seedlings has to do with patience. I don’t have the patience for it — but I am actually a patient person. If I think something is worth having, I think it is also worth waiting for… working for….

So, my partner in this summer garden venture is spritzing the seedlings. What’s so funny is that she might be perceived as less patient. I talk slow; she talks fast. I work slow; she works fast. I edit my words; she is a fountain of words. The Southern girl who grew up on a red dirt road doesn’t have the patience and the Big City girl does. I love that.

Life isn’t always what is perceived, is it? I laughed at myself when I looked back at Bon Appétit, Y’all to gauge the proportions for the recipe for the cupcakes. In the headnote that I wrote 5 years ago I scoffed at chefs using beets instead of food coloring, and here I am now using beets. See red velvet and think a bottle of red dye and instead, it’s all natural coloring. It’s not what you would think; it’s not what one would automatically perceive.

Life isn’t at all what is often perceived by not only others, but also ourselves, and life is always, always changing.

I’m thankful, not of misperception of course, but of changing life. That’s what keeps us alive and growing.

I’m thankful to have the opportunity to cook in cool kitchens. I’m excited and thankful about our summer garden. (We’ve got scads of okra started so I can test recipes for my next book — on OKRA! It’s a little single subject university press and I am SO excited.) I’m thankful for the many opportunities being presented to me. I am thankful I love my work. I am thankful for my friends, family, and loved ones.

Speaking of, I’m very thankful there’s someone more patient than me to spritz seedlings and help our young plants grow. I’ll show up right about when it’s time to shovel that heavy Yankee dirt and turn those houseplants into a garden.

Bon Appétit, Y’all

MAKES 1 ½ quarts batter (2 9-inch layers or 100 mini cupcakes)

3 medium beets, scrubbed
1 cup canola oil, more for the pan if making a cake
½ cup + 2 tablespoons buttermilk
4 large eggs
1 ½ cups all purpose flour
1 ½ cups sugar
½ cup cocoa
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
8 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 (16-ounce) box confectioners’ sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 cup chopped pecans, for garnish, optional

Heat the oven to 350. Place the beets on a rimmed baking sheet and roast until tender, about 1 hour. Remove and let cool. Peel the beets and coarsely chop.

Place the chopped beets in the large bowl of a large food processor fitted with the blade attachment. Process until chunky, stopping to scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula. With the food processor running, add the oil and continue processing until very smooth. Add 1/2 cup buttermilk and eggs. Puree until smooth.

Add the flour, sugar, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Pulse until well-combined. (If you have a large food processor you can continue in the processor, if not, sift the dry ingredients in a large bowl and add the wet ingredients from the food processor to the dry and stir until combined by hand. Don’t be blaming me when your beet dribbles onto your kitchen counter if your processor isn’t big enough.)

For mini cupcakes: Line the tin with cupcake liners. Using a ice cream scoop, a spoon, or a liquid measuring cup, fill the liners no more than 2/3 full. (This is important!!) Transfer to the oven and bake until firm, about 10 minutes. Remove to a rack to cool.

Meanwhile, to prepare the frosting, in the bowl of a mixer fitted with the paddle or beater attachment, cream the cream cheese and butter on medium speed until smooth. Sift over the confectioners’ sugar. Beat until light and fluffy. Beat in the vanilla. If too stiff, add the 2 tablespoons buttermilk, 1 teaspoon at a time, to achieve the correct consistency. Transfer the frosting to a piping bag. Top with a kiss of frosting. Sprinkle with optional pecans. Serve within 2-3 days.

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.

Southern Saturdays with Virginia: Vidalia Onion Quiche Wednesday, May 4 2011 

Spring may mean lamb to some, asparagus to others, and perhaps for a lucky few, spring means morel mushrooms. Not for me.

Spring for me means Vidalia onions are in season. The season starts with the baby Vidalia’s. They look like an overgrown green onion or like an overly  bulbous leek. A short while later the real deal arrives, golden squatty onions with just covered in yellow and white, papery skin.

Being from Georgia, I am a huge supporter of Vidalia onions. Much in the way that France regulates food and wine with appellation d’origine contrôlée, the Georgia state legislature got together in 1986 and decided that Vidalia onions had to be grown within a certain region of Vidalia, Georgia. This is an unusually sweet variety of onion, due to the low amount of sulfur in the soil. If Vidalia onions are unavailable, make something else. No, I’m teasing. You can use another sweet onion, such as Walla Walla or Texas sweet.

All onions need circulating air to stay fresh. Vidalia onions are particularly tricky due to their high sugar content. Mama taught me one of the best ways to store Vidalia onions is in the cut-off legs of pantyhose: drop an onion down the leg, tie a knot, and repeat. Hang the onion-filled hose from a hook in a cool, dry place. They will keep for months.

Their natural sweetness creates a candy-like confit, which is excellent as a condiment or a spread, and absolutely divine in this quiche.

Bon Appétit, Y’all!
Virginia Willis

Vidalia Onion Quiche
Makes one 10-inch quiche

French Pie Pastry (recipe follows), blind baked
11/2 cups Vidalia Onion Confit (recipe follows)
3 large eggs
3 large egg yolks
2 cups whole milk
1/2 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
Pinch of cayenne pepper
Coarse salt and freshly ground white pepper

Prepare the pastry shell and the onion confit; let both cool.

Preheat the oven to 350°F. To make the custard, whisk together the eggs, egg yolks, milk, cream, parsley, and cayenne pepper in a large bowl. Season with salt and pepper. Set aside.

Spread the cooled onion confit in the pastry shell. Pour the custard over the onions. Bake until the custard is lightly browned and set, 30 to 35 minutes. Remove to a rack to cool slightly. Serve warm or at room temperature.

French Pie Pastry
Makes one (10-inch) tart shell

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into bits and chilled
2 large egg yolks
5 to 6 tablespoons cold water

To prepare the dough, combine the flour and salt in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade. Add the butter. Process until the mixture resembles coarse meal, 8 to 10 seconds. Add the egg yolks and pulse to combine.

With the processor on pulse, add the ice water a tablespoon at a time. Pulse until the mixture holds together as a soft, but not crumbly or sticky, dough. Shape the dough into a disk, wrap in plastic wrap, and refrigerate until firm and evenly moist, about 30 minutes.

To prepare the dough, lightly flour a clean work surface and rolling pin. Place the dough disk in the center of the floured surface. Roll out the dough, starting in the center and rolling up to, but not over, the top edge of the dough.

Return to the center, and roll down to, but not over, the bottom edge. Give the dough a quarter turn, and continue rolling, repeating the quarter turns until you have a disk about 1/8 inch thick.

Drape the dough over the rolling pin and transfer to a 10-inch tart pan with a removable bottom, unrolling over the tin.

With one hand lift the pastry and with the other gently tuck it into the pan, being careful not to stretch or pull the dough.

Let the pastry settle into the bottom of the pan.

Take a small piece of dough and shape it into a ball. Press the ball of dough around the bottom edges of the tart pan, snugly shaping the pastry to the pan without tearing it.

Remove any excess pastry by rolling the pin across the top of the pan.

Prick the bottom of the pastry all over with the tines of a fork to help prevent shrinkage during baking. Chill until firm, about 30 minutes.

To blind bake, preheat the oven to 425°F. Crumple a piece of parchment paper, then lay it out flat over the bottom of the pastry. Weight the paper with pie weights, dried beans, or uncooked rice. This will keep the unfilled pie crust from puffing up in the oven.

For a partially baked shell that will be filled and baked further, bake for 20 minutes. Remove from the oven and remove the paper and weights. (You can reuse the rice or beans for blind-baking a number of times.) The shell can now be filled and baked further, according to the recipe directions. For a fully baked shell that will hold an uncooked filling, bake the empty shell until a deep golden brown, about 30 minutes total.

Vidalia Onion Confit
Makes about 1 1/2 cups

One of Mama’s favorite recipes is to simply peel and quarter Vidalias, top them with a pat of butter, and microwave the pieces until they are tender. This recipe is not much more difficult.

Confit is most often meat, such as duck, that has been cooked and preserved in its own fat, but the term also describes a jamlike condiment of cooked seasoned fruit or vegetables. This confit is wonderful as suggested, served on toasts as a nibble, but it also shines served as a condiment with pork or chicken. It is absolutely incredible with blue cheese.

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

5 onions, preferably Vidalia, chopped (about 11/2 pounds)
1/2 teaspoon firmly packed dark brown sugar
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup dry red wine
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme, plus small sprigs for garnish

To make the confit, heat the butter and remaining olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onions and sugar, and season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are soft, 15 to 20 minutes.

Increase the heat to medium-high. Add the wine and cook, stirring occasionally, until the wine is reduced and the onions are a deep golden brown, 15 to 20 minutes more. Add the thyme; taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper. Transfer to a bowl to cool completely for continuing with the quiche.

Reprinted with permission from Bon Appétit, Y’all: Recipes and Stories from Three Generations of Southern Cooking by Virginia Willis, copyright © 2008. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House. Photo credit: Ellen Silverman © 2008

Birds and the Bees: Springtime in the South Tuesday, Apr 6 2010 

Spring tulip on a dewey morning in a dear friend’s garden.

Atlanta is glorious in spring. My windows are open; I hear the buzz of the bees, the lilting song of the birds, and the breeze gently waving in the trees. Earlier today it was a swirling snowstorm of pink blossoms when a bold gust of wind jostled the cherry trees, the petals cavorting in the wind. I watched a brilliant red male cardinal dash and dart among the budding hydrangea, flitting and flirting with his amorous choice of desire, a more subdued female. The daffodils and forsythia are bursting with color so yellow it’s positively garish. I’ve brought some of the flowers inside to enjoy and their sweetness fills the air. Atlanta is glorious in spring.

I was recently fortunate enough to shoot Easter with Country Living for spring of 2011. Some of the recipes will be in my next book, Basic to Brilliant, Y’all. It was hosted by my sweet dear cousins Gene and Kathy Waites, at their lovely home in Fort Valley. Kathy took some snaps of the shoot itself, and I thought I would share.

Many thanks to them for their generous hospitality — and to my family, too for putting up with me.

Enjoy the photos and there’s a little recipe at the end, too.

Mama and I – She’s positive the pot likker shots need salt and I am a bit amused….

Tools of the Trade: Q-tips can be your best friend.

The Team at Work – It’s pretty amazing how different it looks in “real life” and how it transforms in the lens.

Behind the Scenes – but Mama, ahem, still thinks the pot likker needs salt….

Our Easter Buffet -Heather and Barb orchestrated an amazing spectacle.

Camera envy!!

Messing around with Mama and her Ben Franks!

Yes, undoubtedly I am a Mama’s girl, just in case you were wondering.
I love my Mama. She and my sister came down early for the shoot to help me out.

Life is good. Spring is glorious.
I am so happy and very thankful for my many, many blessings

Bon Appétit, Y’all
Virginia ‘

Here’s a recipe that I shared with Whole Foods Market last spring I thought you might enjoy.

Makes 2 dozen

Asparagus is a member of the Lily family and the spears grow from a crown that is planted about a foot deep in sandy soil. It’s harvested in the spring and it’s amazing to see – the spears literally grow straight out of the earth. The first time I saw this was at the beautiful kitchen gardens at Jefferson’s Monticello. When shopping for asparagus look for firm, fresh, spears with closed, compact tips and uniform diameter, so that all spears will cook in the same amount of time.

Meme loved asparagus, which she called “asparagus salad,” although there wasn’t anything to preparing it other than opening the familiar shiny silver can. Even though I know the flavor of canned asparagus (really, there isn’t any) cannot compare to freshly cooked, I enjoy that taste memory.

The ends of fresh asparagus can be tough and woody. I prefer to slice off the last inch or two of the stem instead of snapping it off where the spear breaks naturally. Not only is it more visually appealing when all the spears are exactly the same size, but they will also cook at the same rate.

24 asparagus spears
12 sheets of phyllo dough, thawed
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
2 tablespoons sesame seeds, preferably black
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

Bring a shallow skillet of salted water to the boil. Add the asparagus and cook until just tender, 2 –3 minutes. Drain and plunge into an ice water bath to stop the cooking. Remove the asparagus when cool and transfer to a paper towel lined plate. Pat dry and set aside.

Heat the oven to 450° with the rack in the center. Line a baking sheet with a Silpat (non-stick silicon baking sheet) or parchment paper; set aside.

Place 1 sheet of phyllo dough on a clean dry surface. Keep the remaining sheets covered with a clean, slightly damp towel. Brush phyllo lightly with melted butter and top with a second sheet of phyllo. Brush again with butter. Cut into 4 rectangular pieces, each about 5 x 7-inches.

Arrange a spear of asparagus on the short end of the phyllo rectangle, letting the tip lay exposed beyond the top edge by a half inch or so. Roll up and secure the edge of the dough with additional butter, if necessary. Sprinkle with sesame seeds.

Repeat with the remaining ingredients, transferring to the prepared baking sheet. The straws may be made up to 1 to 2 hours ahead at this point, covered with plastic wrap and kept refrigerated.

Cover the tips of the asparagus with a piece of aluminum foil to protect them from the heat. Bake until golden brown, 8 to 10 minutes. Serve warm.

Spring Fever: Lamb Stew with Spring Vegetables Sunday, Apr 19 2009 


Spring Flowers

It’s raining today, not real rain – just the drizzle that makes the sofa look so very inviting. And, it’s just cool enough that a stew is the perfect Sunday supper.

Here’s a wonderful recipe for Lamb Stew with Spring Vegetables. I like to use the shoulder because the meat is flavorful with just enough fat so that the meat stays moist. As tempting as it may be, don’t purchase the lamb that is already cubed. It’s usually the leftover bits and pieces, often from different areas of the animal.

I absolutely adore turnips. Some of the farmers in my area are growing hakurei turnips. They are delicious raw. They are tender, very crisp and fresh, not bitter at all, almost sweet. Frankly, I have to buy 2 bunches because I always eat one on the way home! Nope, don’t even wash them! Just rub the dirt off on my shorts! Regular turnips will do, of course. And, as a matter of interest, do recommend washing them!

Bon Appétit Y’all!

PS – I also send out a newsletter including a recipe every 4 weeks or so. I don’t do anything rude like sell or rent your name, and I don’t bug your with gobs of emails, so please sign up today!



Serves 4
2 pounds lamb shoulder
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 large onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 cup dry white wine
4 tomatoes, chopped
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 cups homemade chicken stock or low sodium chicken broth
Bouquet garni wrapped in cheesecloth of 2 sprigs thyme, 3 sprigs parsley, and 1 bay leaf)
8 small new potatoes
8 baby carrots, peeled
8 small turnips, peeled and halved
8 shallots, peeled
2 cups freshly shelled English peas
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

Heat the oven to 350°. Season the lamb with salt and pepper. Heat the butter and oil in a large oven proof Dutch oven over medium-high heat and brown the lamb on all sides. Remove to a plate.

Reduce the heat to low and add the chopped onion and cook gently until golden brown, 5 to 7 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, 45 to 60 seconds. Add the flour and cook until light blonde in color. Add the wine and stir to loosen the brown bits and from the bottom of the pan. Add the tomatoes, chicken stock, and tomato purée. Return the lamb to the Dutch oven and add the bouquet garni; Season with salt and pepper.

Bring to a boil and cover with a tight-fitting lid. Transfer to the heated oven and cook until the lamb is just beginning to become tender, about 45 minutes. Remove from the oven and add the potatoes, carrots, turnips, and onions. Cover and return to oven and bake and 30 minutes. Add the peas and cover and return to oven and cook for an additional 15 minutes. Remove and discard the bouquet garni. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper. Serve straight from the casserole with a loaf of crusty French bread.

Most Delicious Deviled Eggs Saturday, Apr 11 2009 

Spring Flowers

I took the above photograph a few weeks ago at the Chapel Hill Farmer’s Market. It was a rainy Saturday morning, overcast and cool. The light can be so nice on days like that. I just love this photo, but I can’t claim too much credit. At this farmer’s market, like many, there was not much to do. Just point and shoot! I would really like to take photography classes. (In my spare time! Ok – maybe a reward for when I complete my second book proposal.)


These deviled eggs are amazing. It’s very important to puree the yolk mixture completely, and really I prefer using a sieve or tamis. This prevents lumps and makes the mixture so much smoother as well as prettier. This is another one of those recipes that there are very few ingredients which makes the technique is so important. 

I made these once for a political fundraiser at my friend Melita Easter’s house, attended by the governor of Georgia, who stood there and practically ate the whole plate. The secret is butter, a tip I picked up in culinary school that takes this Southern staple from delicious to sublime and renders people unable to use the sense God gave a cat to stop eating. (more…)

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