Lifelong Learning: One Soufflé at a Time Monday, Nov 25 2013 

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I can’t describe how proud I am of this photograph. I’ve previously written about my admiration for my mentor and teacher, Anne Willan in a post titled The LaVarenne Way. I was recently able to be her sous chef at Rancho la Puerta and it was such an honor and privilege to assist her, once again. She graciously insists we teach together, but I know better. I may be an accomplished chef and food writer, but with Anne I am the constant student. She’s had an amazing career and each and every time I am in the kitchen with her I learn something.

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I admit I take it personally when folks don’t realize what an enormous contribution Anne has made to the world of food, cooking, and food-writing — or even sometimes who she is. Those who are in the know are also in awe. In May, Anne was inducted into the James Beard Foundation’s Cookbook Hall of Fame for her body of work, which includes 40 cookbooks and a 26-part PBS program. The list of LaVarenne alumni goes on and on — Amanda Hesser, Alex Guarnaschelli, Tanya Holland, Steve Raichlen, Kate Krader, and Gale Gand are just a few.

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All those folks may be in media and on TV, but that’s the thing, Anne is, as one review stated, “not the next Food Network Star.” Indeed, she is not, but without her there wouldn’t be one.

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Anne’s latest book is her memoir called One Soufflé at a Time. In it she documents her wonderful, wondrous life in food. It’s peppered with stories of smuggling truffles, as well as the birth of LaVarenne Pratique, the culinary masterpiece that was eventually translated into 9 languages and sold over 1 million copies. (It’s out of print and much sought after on e-bay. However, it will be available as an e-book soon. Make sure to “Like” Anne Willan on Facebook to hear about the release.

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Born and raised in England, she attended Oxford University and graduated with a degree in Economics. Her scores were not stellar and her father suggested she attend secretarial school. Instead, she thought she’d do something different and studied at Le Cordon Bleu. She went on to cook for the Van der Kamps at Chateau de Versailles where she cooked for British royalty, French aristocrats, and Heads of State. She later became the Food Editor for the Washington Star and an editor for Gourmet Magazine. In 1975, encouraged by her dear friends Julia Child and James Beard, she founded the Parisian cooking school LaVarenne, the first bilingual French cooking school in Paris. Whether you recognize her name or not, Anne Willan and LaVarenne were hugely impactful in popularizing French cuisine to the American public. She demystified classic French culinary technique for regular people who love food. Her recipes and instructions are clear and direct, much like Anne.

The reviews of One Soufflé at a Time have been been solid:

“Ms. Willan tells the story of her life—interspersing it generously with recipes, classic French and otherwise—in an easygoing, readable style, full of anecdote and insight. Along the way, she lets us intuit, rather than informing us, just what an influential figure she has been.” — Colman Andrews, Wall Street Journal

“When Julia Child introduced me to her dear friend, Anne Willan, she said, ‘You must get to know Anne, she is remarkable!’ Julia was almost right: Anne is extraordinary! For those of us who love Anne and have admired – and benefited – from her work (she trained some of my favorite chefs and editors), this memoir is filled with insights, lessons, inspiration and so many tales of adventure. And for those of you who are just meeting Anne, you’re lucky – you have a treat in store.”–Dorie Greenspan, author of Around My French Table and co-owner of Beurre & Sel cookies

..a memoir inundated with easy-to-follow recipes for classic French foods than a regular cookbook, the book reinforces what I’ve suspected all along: Storytelling is the best way to teach.” Praised as a “Book worth Buying” by Saveur Magazine

I have to be honest and admit I haven’t quite finished it. I’m savoring it like a French buttery sablé, enjoying bits at a time, sneaking reads in between a slew of deadlines. In it I hear Anne’s clear, strong voice and I feel like I am the constant student, joyfully learning once again.

In honor of Thanksgiving, I wanted to share Anne’s recipe for Moroccan Roast Turkey found in One Soufflé at a Time. I actually originally tested this recipe as an editorial assistant — over 15 years ago for her cookbook Cooked to Perfection. It’s positively delicious and like much of Anne’s work, has stood the test of time. If you’re wanting to try something a little different this Thanksgiving week, I can’t think of anyone else to trust.

Bon Appétit Y’all!
VA

MOROCCAN SPICED TURKEY
Serves 8

A 10-pound/4.5 kg turkey
2 tablespoons sesame seeds
1 cup/100 g slivered almonds, very finely chopped
2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon ground coriander
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon salt
1 onion studded with 6 whole cloves
2 tablespoons softened butter

For basting
1/2 cup/110 g honey
2 cups/500 ml chicken stock, more if needed
String for trussing

1. Heat the oven to 350F and set a shelf low down. Spread the chopped almonds and sesame seeds in a single layer in a shallow pan and toast them in the oven, shaking the pan occasionally, until golden, 8-10 minutes. Set aside to cool. Leave the oven on.

2. In a small bowl, mix the ground cinnamon, cumin, coriander, ginger and cloves with the salt and pepper. Rub both the skin and cavity of the turkey with the spice mixture. Set the bird on its back in a roasting pan and spread the skin with softened butter. Put the whole onion inside the turkey and tie it in a neat shape with string. Warm the honey and half the stock in a small pan and pour this over the bird.

3. Roast the turkey in the heated oven until it is golden brown all over and the meat starts to shrink from the drumsticks, 2 1/2-3 hours. During cooking, turning it on one side, then the other, and finally returning it to its back. The turkey is done when you lift it with a two-pronged fork, juices from the cavity run clear, not pink, and when you rotate a drumstick it will feel pliable not rigid. During roasting, baste the bird often and, when the juices begin to brown, add the remaining stock. Dilute with more stock towards the end of cooking if needed as that the honey scorches easily.

4. About 15 minutes before the turkey is done, take it from the roasting pan and strain the pan juices into a small saucepan. Skim off the fat and boil the juices to reduce them if necessary — there should be about 1 cup/250 ml of this glaze. Stir in the toasted sesame seeds and almonds. Return the turkey to the roasting pan, spread the glaze over the top, and continue roasting, basting very often, until the skin is dark golden brown and crisp, 10-15 minutes.

5. Transfer the turkey to a carving board or platter, cover it loosely with foil and let stand 10-15 minutes. Before serving, discard the strings and onion from the cavity.

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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.

Photo credit – Lisa Ekus

Copyright © 2013 Virginia Willis Culinary Enterprises, Inc.

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.

Thanksgiving Morning: Two Great Ways to Start the Day Wednesday, Nov 25 2009 

Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and websites – everywhere you look are recipes or stories about Thanksgiving sides or The Best Turkey. I’m guilty, too having sent out recipes for winter greens and winter vegetable gratin just last week.

But, I was talking to some folks this past weekend at Mistletoe Market in Perry, GA and we were talking about making breakfast for a crowd. I suggested they try my recipe for French Toast Casserole. It’s great. (If you click on the photo you can see it featured in Paula Deen’s magazine.) I’ve shared it before so excuse the redundancy, but it’s perfect and I don’t think you’ll mind because it tastes soooo good.

Breakfast can get the short shift on Thanksgiving. There’s so much food later in the day, but the morning can be hectic. When my sister and I were young, our favorite mornings were when Mama would prepare French toast for breakfast. The smell of butter, kissed with cinnamon, combined with the heady scent of sizzling egg was a most welcome greeting as we bounded down the stairs.

Sounds great – but nothing to make with a full house of people and lots of cooking still left to do. So, instead of another side dish to compete with Mama’s Sweet Potato Casserole or dessert to compete with Cousin Kathy’s Buttermilk Pecan Pie, I am sharing a couple of recipes for breakfast or brunch. (I will admit however, I have served the cassserole before as a dessert, but that’s neither here nor there 😉 )

My French Toast Casserole is made the night before, so you won’t find yourself camped in front of a hot griddle in the early morning, groggy and in need of caffeine. Make it tomorrow night and then, Thanksgiving morning remove it from the fridge to take the chill off. Grab a cup of coffee and pop it in the oven. Turn on the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade, give many thanks you aren’t in that crowd lining the streets of NYC, and basically, breakfast is ready. It’s a sturdy dish, nothing to fuss over, and responds well to being kept in a low oven while family members emerge for the day.

If you want to go for an even more simple way to start the day, try Sauteed Pears with Vanilla Yogurt and Honey Peanuts. The pears can be sauteed the night before and even microwaved in individual servings on Thanksgiving morning. I love the flavor combination of the peanut and the pear.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone. I have so much to be thankful for – no, not everything is perfect by a looooong shot – but I am so grateful for what I do have. I have my health, my family, good friends, and love in my life.

Bon Appétit, Y’all!
VA

SAUTEED PEARS WITH VANILLA YOGURT AND HONEY PEANUTS
Serves 4 to 6

1 tablespoon unsalted butter
4 large Bosc pears, peeled, cored, and sliced
1 tablespoon sugar
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground ginger
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
Pinch of fine salt
1/4 cup smooth peanut butter
1 tablespoon honey
1 cup low fat vanilla or plain yogurt
1/4 cup honey roasted peanuts, coarsely chopped

Melt the butter in a large heavy bottomed sauté pan over medium high heat. Add pears and cook, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes, or until softened. Sprinkle with sugar, cinnamon, ginger and lemon juice. Season with a pinch of fine salt. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until tender, about 5 to 7 minutes. Keep warm.

In a small bowl combine the peanut butter, honey, and yogurt; stir until smooth. Set aside.

To serve, place the pears in a shallow bowl. Top with yogurt mixture. Sprinkle over peanuts. Serve immediately.

Mama Says It’s Okay: Root Vegetable Gratin Monday, Nov 16 2009 

Last week I wrote about “messing around with greens” with a recipe for Meme’s loooonnnggg-cooked greens and the wisdom of not changing the sacrosant and inviolable Thanksgiving menu.

This week? I’m feeling a little frisky. Actually, a lot.

I’ve taught a lovely recipe for a Root Vegetable Gratin for my next book in class several times over the last few weeks. Everyone has really loved it.

Mama was in town as my date for the Georgia Restaurant Association Awards. (They kindly honored me by asking me to be their keynote speaker.) I was showing her my photos over the past month or so. She drawled, “That’s pretty,” commenting on the golden, bubbly gratin. I told her about it and she thought it sounded nice.

I ventured out on a limb, “I uh, I thought I would maybe try that for our Thanksgiving.” She slightly lifted her brow and queried, “Oh?” Bravely, I proceeded, “Well, everyone really likes it.” (Of course, immediately bringing to mind deeply buried memories of being a child and a parent saying something along the lines of “If everyone jumped off a cliff, would you?”)

Mama smiled sweetly – as only mama’s can do – and replied, “I think we should try it.”

Hope you do, too.

Bon Appétit, Y’all!
VA

PS. Here’s a picture of mama down at the pond earlier this year. Shh! Don’t tell.

ROOT VEGETABLE GRATIN WITH SAUCE MORNAY
Serves 6 to 8

French chef Antonin Carême evolved an intricate methodology by which hundreds of sauces were classified under one of five “mother sauces”: Béchamel, Velouté, Espagnole, Hollandaise, and Tomato. Béchamel, one of the most useful sauces, is a white sauce made by stirring heated milk into a butter-flour roux. The thickness of the sauce depends on the proportion of flour and butter to milk. Mornay, the sauce in this gratin is a sauce derivative of Béchamel created by simply adding cheese.

DON’T get caught up on the vegetable combination! It’s a mixture of root vegetable and tubers. Can’t find celery root? Use Yukon Gold potatoes. Try sweet potatoes instead of carrots and rutabagas instead of parsnips. Get all crazy and add a turnip or two. Mix it up and don’t overthink it.

2 cups reduced fat milk
10 peppercorns
3 sprigs parsley
2 sprigs thyme
4 medium carrots, cut into 1 inch pieces
4 small parsnips, cut into 1 inch pieces
1 celery root, peeled and cut into 1 inch pieces
1 butternut squash, peeled and cut into 1 inch pieces
3 tablespoons freshly chopped parsley
1⁄4 cup unsalted butter, more for the baking dish
1⁄4 cup all purpose flour
1 1⁄4 cups freshly grated Gruyère cheese
1/2 cup Panko or dry bread crumbs
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

Heat the milk in a small pot until just simmering. Add the peppercorns, parsley, and thyme. Remove from the heat and set aside to steep for 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat the oven to 350°. Butter a large gratin dish and set aside. Combine all the vegetables in a large bowl and season with salt and pepper. (You can also parcook the vegetables in the microwave until just tender, about 5 to 7 minutes depending on the strength of your microwave.) Add chopped herbs and stir to combine. Set aside.

Melt the butter in a saucepan, whisk in the flour and cook for a minute or two until foaming. Pour in the milk and bring to a boil, whisking constantly until the sauce thickens. Season and simmer for 2 minutes. The sauce should coat the back of a spoon. Take the sauce from the heat and stir in half of both cheeses until they melt. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper. Spoon the sauce over the vegetables and stir to combine.

Spoon the vegetable mixture into the prepared gratin. Cover with foil and transfer the gratin to the oven and bake until the vegetables are tender, 45 to 60 minutes. (Or, if using parcooked vegetables, only about 30 minutes.)

Heat the oven to broil. Combine the remaining gruyère, panko, and Parmesan. Sprinkle over the top of the gratin. Broil until golden brown, about 5 minutes, depending on the strength of your broiler. Remove from the oven, let cool slightly, and serve.

To make ahead and reheat: Do not add the layer of breadcrumb mixture. Remove from the refrigerator, and let come to room temperature, 15 to 20 minutes. Cover with parchment paper, and reheat in a 400° oven for 20 minutes. Top with breadcrumb mixture, and broil until golden brown, about 5 minutes.

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