Sunday, September 9, 2012

Virginia Willis to christen cooking school at new Whole Foods in Charlotte

For information or to register for the inaugural class Virginia Willis
will teach on Wednesday at Salud!, visit the Whole Foods-Charlotte website.

For some folks, turning the calendar past Labor Day means closing the door on summer. It triggers a primal reflex to transfer whites and summer brights to the back of the closet to allow the autumnal advance of more burnished shades. Others can’t resist the call to compulsively buy mums to anchor their front porch steps.

Virginia Willis felt a similar itch driving back to still-hot Atlanta this week from a cool summer spent in New England. “Hello fall!” she declared on her Facebook page before starting the journey, which will bring her to Charlotte on Wednesday to celebrate the opening of Salud!, the in-store cooking school of the new Whole Foods at 6610 Fairview Road.

“They wrote to me and asked if I’d be the first,” said Willis, a standard bearer for contemporary Southern cuisine as exemplified in her current book, Basic to Brilliant, Y'all: 150 Refined Southern Recipes and Ways To Dress Them Up for Company. “I hope people agree it’s again time to talk about greens and braising.”

While a bit sad to bid adieu to butter beans, tomatoes and especially okra – she’s currently researching the beloved pods for a volume in the acclaimed UNC Press Savor the South series – Willis is ready for the arrival of fall crops. Wednesday’s class menu features Garlic Stuffed Pork Roast (see recipe below), Winter Greens and Butternut Squash Gratin, and Bittersweet Chocolate Bread Pudding with Goat Cheese Caramel Sauce.

“My mind started going there when I saw the first tiny brushstrokes of color on the leaves in New England,” she said. “I find this happens all the time with the seasons. I love summer vegetables, but then when you see those first baskets of apples at the farmers' market stands, it is just so wonderful.”

The changing seasons inspires Willis to apply an artist’s color wheel to her chef’s palate, which also leans toward a different vocabulary of cooking techniques.

“For me, the cooking is different: more braising and less grilling,” she said. “The best part is when there’s a little bit of overlap, like right now. You get to enjoy it all.”

Photos courtesy of Virginia Willis from
previous cooking classes.
The pork recipe is a perfect transition to fall cooking. Studded with garlic and braised in milk, it delivers an Italian-inspired meal that is both simple to prepare and terrific for impressing dinner guests. It’s a classic example of the basic-to-brilliant model.

“The truth is, I don’t think that my recipes are terribly difficult,” Willis said. “I really try to give the home cook the tools and techniques to make something more chef-inspired. Someone will look at that meal and be impressed, but really it’s a simple dish.”

Willis enjoys teaching this recipe because the involved skills are so practical. “Cooking one large dish for a dinner is much less risk than making individual everything,” she said. “I love doing that for a special occasion, but you don’t want to be stuck in the kitchen when you have company. It’s a braised dish that makes it own gravy. It’s really user friendly.”

The dessert selection is just as decadent as it sounds, but no more difficult to master. “I make it a point in my classes that it’s important to balance all the flavors of a meal. With all the strong flavors of this menu, the dessert has to be intense to stand up to it,” she said. “Also, that bread pudding is just ridiculously good.”

Willis has made plenty of bread puddings over the years, but the “brilliant” part of this recipe – the goat cheese caramel sauce – was the result of “a happy accident.” While cooking a fundraiser dinner at a friend’s restaurant, they ran out of heavy cream to make a traditional caramel sauce.

“All they had was goat cheese, so that’s what we used,” she recalled with a laugh, citing the importance of gaining comfort with basic recipes and techniques so home cooks can make similarly confident creative choices. “It turned out to be incredible. No kidding, it’s easy to make and over-the-top good.”

Garlic-Studded Pork Roast in Milk
(Reprinted with permission from Bon Appétit, Y’all: Basic to Brilliant, 150 Refined Southern Recipes and Ways to Dress Them Up for Company by Virginia Willis, copyright © 2011. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House.)

Serves 4 to 6

This recipe has more of an Italian influence than French or Southern. When in my early twenties, I took the night train from Paris by myself and met my mother and two friends in Rome. It was one of the more adult events of my life at that point. It always seemed a bonus when getting on a “fast train” to actually arrive at the correct destination. Board the wrong one and you are a long way from where you need to be. I was a little terrified, but I got there. So, now when faced with a challenge, I consider myself most fortunate if I speak the language and have the currency.

We enjoyed this simple country dish while traveling from Florence to Venice. Traditionally, pork shoulder is braised and slow cooked. Since the shoulder muscle gets exercise, it’s tough and needs long, slow cooking. By adapting this recipe to using a loin, the cooking time is drastically reduced.

1 (4-pound) center-cut boneless pork loin
2 cloves garlic, very thinly sliced and seasoned with salt and pepper
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons pure olive oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 onion, preferably Vidalia, chopped
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
2 cups whole milk, or 1 cup whole milk and 1 cup heavy cream, warmed
Bouquet garni (1 sprig flat-leaf parsley, 2 sprigs thyme, and 4 fresh sage leaves, tied together in cheesecloth)
Fresh sage leaves, for garnish

Cut several slits in the pork and insert the garlic slivers in the slits. Set aside to come to room temperature. Season the roast on all sides with salt and pepper.

Heat the oil and butter over high heat in a large, heavy pot until shimmering. Add the meat and brown on all sides, about 8 minutes. Remove to a plate. 

Decrease the heat to medium. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until golden brown, about 5 minutes. Add the flour and cook, stirring occasionally, for 2 minutes. Add the warmed milk and bring to a boil, whisking until smooth. Add the bouquet garni, the pork, and any juices that have collected on the plate. Decrease the heat to simmer.

Simmer, uncovered, turning the meat occasionally and scraping the bottom of the pot. (As the milk cooks, it starts to curdle and form small curds.) Stir often to keep the curds from sticking and cook until the pork is tender and an instant-read thermometer inserted into the center of the meat registers 140°F to 145°F, about 1 hour. The pork will be slightly pink in the center (this is desirable).

Transfer the pork to a cutting board, preferably with a moat. Tent with aluminum foil to keep warm. Let it rest for about 10 minutes. Meanwhile, taste the curds and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper. Transfer to a warmed serving platter. Slice the pork loin about ¼ inch thick and place on the curds. Garnish with sage leaves and serve.

Brilliant: Short Recipe
Pork Roast Stuffed with Sausage

This presentation looks pretty impressive, but it’s very simple to do.

Using a knife, cut a slit in one end of the roast. Then, take a knife-sharpening steel and create a hole through the center length of the pork loin. Repeat with the other end. Widen the tunnel using your fingers and by rotating the steel in the loin at both ends. Insert 2 or 3 fully cooked sausages (about 8 ounces total—I like Aidell’s Italian-style with mozzarella, but any cooked sausage will do). Proceed with the Basic recipe. The presentation and added flavor at the center is Brilliant.

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