Cook the classics in the hilly Virginia countryside
The drive south from Washington, D.C., leads you away from the political arena of the city to the rolling hills, gentle landscapes, and charming views of the Virginia countryside. This is historic country, settled before the Revolutionary War. One of the grandest houses of that period is the stately Inn at Meander Plantation in Locust Dale, Virginia.
The plantation, patented in 1726, is located near Thomas Jefferson's Monticello and James Madison's Montpelier. Once frequent host to both presidents and other historical luminaries, today the plantation's inn remains a welcoming getaway-and a relaxing spot for a cooking class-for Washingtonians on retreat, newlyweds, or vacationers touring nearby colonial-era historic sites.
Photography: Squire Fox
The simplicity of colonial style-pure, austere, and elegant-permeates the public spaces of the inn, and a stay there starts with settling into cozy renovated quarters. These include a romantic two-story retreat that once was the summer kitchen and a secluded beamed-ceiling Groom's Cottage. The grounds include working stables.
After a day of riding, relaxing, or touring-the inn staff will arrange for tours of Montpelier or Monticello and send explorers off with a picnic lunch-guests gather for drinks and hors d'oeuvres in the drawing room or on the wraparound porch. Then, they'll enjoy a prix-fixe dinner in the salon or dining room. Friends are made, conversation is lively, and a meal perfected by innkeepers Suzie Blanchard and Suzanne Thomas is shared. Small-batch wines from Virginia vineyards complement dinner.
The monthly two-day cooking classes include accommodations, lunches, an informal dinner on Monday, and a more formal dinner on Tuesday. Students gather in the snug restaurant kitchen for a completely hands-on experience, congenially bumping elbows with the chefs, wait staff, and each other.
This month's Celebrate Autumn class showcases the bounty of the fall garden-corn, tomatoes, zucchini, squash, eggplant, and aromatic silvery sage. Suzie (at left) starts with Harvest Corn Soup, turning a farm-stand staple into an elegant, full-flavored puree. She coaxes sweet corn taste into the soup by pressing cooked corn through a strainer to get the purest liquid possible. The flavor is impeccable. A fresh tomato, sage, and scallop topper finishes the dish.
Chef Alexander Morris's main dish recipe, Virginia Ham-Stuffed Beef Tenderloin, is simple to prepare and a showstopper at dinner. He guides students in rolling a traditional spinach, leek, sausage, and ham stuffing into a flattened beef tenderloin. The result, roasted and sliced to display its spiraled interior, has rich flavor without resorting to heavy sauces. The ham and sausage are also from local growers.
A colorful side dish, Ratatouille Napoleon, shows off the harvest garden with its panoply of summer squash, zucchini, eggplant, tomatoes, and thyme and rosemary. The slightly roasted vegetables, layered and baked, weave their flavors together in a dish that celebrates freshness and the adage "what grows together, goes together."
It's a convivial group that sits down to dinner. Tomorrow, students will learn to interpret recipes as their own, hear from a local winemaker, and complete their tutorial with a five-course dinner paired with Virginia wines. "We like to end with a graceful, gourmet experience," Suzie says. Assuredly, the relaxed gentility of the Inn at Meander Plantation encourages this centuries-old tradition of fine dining.
Innkeepers Suzie Blanchard (left) and Suzanne Thomas offer two-day classes for two with lodging and meals for $850. Contact the Inn at Meander Plantation, 2333 N. James Madison Parkway, Locust Dale, Virginia 22948. Call 540/672-4912 or visit the Web site at meander.net.
The State of the Vine
"Our dinner menus pair locally produced wines with each course. It's a perfect tie-in with our regional food philosophy," says Suzanne Thomas. "Virginia had a fledgling wine industry when we moved here--a world of wines we could really get our minds around and promote." Today, the state boasts more than 200 wineries. Suzanne and Suzie create Virginia Wine Trail tours for guests, often serving as guides.
"The best varietals are Voignier and Petit Verdot. Voignier is able to tolerate the Virginia humidity and long growing season," Suzanne explains. "Because of this, it produces stellar wines. The red Petit Verdot, previously used as a blending wine, is coming into its own."
Suzanne's top picks include Delfosse Vineyards' (delfossewine.com) Voignier--fruit-forward, floral, with pineapple and apricot overtones"-and Linden Vineyards' (lindenvineyards.com) Petit Verdot, "spicy, earthy, delightful with lamb and beef." Gray Ghost Vineyards' multiple gold award-winning dessert wine Adieu, a late-harvest Vidal Blanc, is another of Suzanne's favorites (grayghostvineyards.com).
What's for dinner, Mrs. Washington?
Our colonial culinary treasures are well documented and easy to reproduce at home. Nach Waxman, owner of Kitchen Arts and Letters, the legendary New York City bookstore dedicated to all tomes gastronomic, shares his favorite American heritage cookbooks.
. Harriott Pinkney Horry. A Colonial Plantation Cookbook. 1770 (Univ. of South Carolina Press, 1984. $20). Early recipes transcribed from a manuscript household book, with useful notes and information on period ingredients and cooking methods.
. Martha Washington. Martha Washington's Booke of Cookery. (Columbia Univ. Press, 1981. $26). Ancestral household notebooks dating back to the early 17th century, brought by Martha Dandridge Custis into her marriage to George Washington. Each new custodian updated the handwritten books for her generation. Immensely useful notes on every aspect of food and cooking practices. Unpublished until this edition appeared.
. Mary Randolph. The Virginia Housewife. 1824 (Univ. of South Carolina Press, 1997. $30). A valuable repository of recipes and household advice taken from family notebooks. Superb notes by food historian Karen Hess, who also edited the Martha Washington compilation.
. Edwin Morris Betts, ed. Thomas Jefferson's Garden Book, 1766-1824 (Thomas Jefferson Foundation, 2008. $50). An essential of Virginia food history. Nearly 60 years of Jefferson's records and correspondence relating to his gardens, especially food plants he introduced and established in mid-Atlantic America. Practical, inspirational, and unfailingly interesting.
All books are available at Kitchen Arts and Letters, 1435 Lexington Avenue, New York, NY; 212/876-5550; kitchenartsandletters.com.
Harvest Corn Soup
12 large ears of fresh sweet corn
1-1/2 cups chopped sweet onion
3 tablespoons butter
5 cups chicken stock or chicken broth
3 tablespoons whipping cream
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper
2 green onion, bias-sliced
1 teaspoon canola oil
1 large fresh tomato, peeled, seeded, and chopped
2 tablespoons chopped fresh sage
Sauteed scallops or shrimp (optional)*
Scrub corn with stiff vegetable brush to remove silks. Rinse under cold running water. Place one ear of corn at a time in shallow pan. Holding corn at an angle, use sharp knife to remove kernels. You should have about 8 cups of corn.
In 4-quart Dutch oven cook onion in hot butter 5 minutes or until tender. Add corn; cook just until heated through. Add 3 cups chicken stock. Bring to boiling. Reduce heat; simmer, uncovered, 20 minutes. Cool slightly.
In blender or food processor process corn mixture, half at a time, until smooth. Strain corn mixture through wire mesh sieve, pressing with back of spoon. Discard solids.
Return corn puree to Dutch oven. Add remaining chicken stock. Bring to boiling. Reduce heat; simmer, 5 minutes, stirring frequently. Stir in whipping cream, salt, and pepper.
In large skillet, cook green onion in hot oil over medium heat 1 minute or until onion turns bright green. Stir in tomato. Cook and stir until just heated through. Serve soup topped with tomato mixture, sage, and scallops or shrimp, if desired. Makes 6 servings.
* Cook 12 small scallops or 12 medium peeled and deveined shrimp in hot olive oil 2 to 4 minutes or until scallops or shrimp are opaque .
Virginia Ham-Stuffed Beef Tenderloin
1 2-1/2 to 3-pound center-cut beef tenderloin roast 4 ounces lean pork sausage
1 medium leek, halved lengthwise and sliced
4 ounces Virginia ham, finely diced
1 cup spinach leaves
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon canola oil
Horizontally cut tenderloin to, but not through, the opposite side. Open to expose cut surfaces. Cover with clear plastic wrap. Pound tenderloin with meat mallet from center to edges, making a 3/4-inch-thick 11x8-inch rectangle; set aside. In 12-inch skillet cook sausage and leek over medium heat until sausage is no longer pink, stirring to break up sausage. Drain fat. Stir in ham; heat through.
Arrange spinach on beef. Top spinach with filling. Starting from long side, roll up meat tightly into spiral. Tie at 2-1/2 inch intervals with 100 percent cotton kitchen string. [See the next four slides for technique demonstration.] Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
Wipe out skillet. Heat oil in skillet over medium-high heat. Add beef; brown on all sides. Place beef on rack in shallow roasting pan. Roast in 325°F oven, uncovered, 45 to 50 minutes or until desired doneness. (For medium-rare doneness, roast until internal temperature registers 135°F on an instant-read thermometer. For medium doneness, roast until 150°F.) Remove from oven; cover with foil. Let stand 10 minutes. (Meat temperature will rise about 10°F.) Transfer to cutting board; reserve pan juices.* Slice roast; arrange on serving platter. Drizzle with pan juices. Makes 6 servings.
*If no pan juices remain, add 1/2 cup dry red wine to pan, scraping up any browned bits. Bring to boiling; reduce heat. Drizzle wine mixture over meat slices.
Technique: Spread, Stuff & Roll
Arrange spinach leaves over the flattened beef in a single layer.
Spoon filling over the spinach leaves, spreading almost to the edges.
Tightly roll the beef into a spiral, making sure long ends overlap slightly.
Turn beef roll seam side down and secure with kitchen string cut to 12-inch lengths.
1-1/3 pounds vine-ripened or plum tomatoes
3 small zucchini
2 small yellow summer squash
1 medium eggplant, peeled if desired
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 sprigs each fresh thyme and rosemary, leaves removed and snipped
Preheat oven to 400°F. Using a mandoline or sharp knife, slice vegetables lengthwise about 1/4 inch thick. Line two or three 15x10x1-inch baking pans with parchment paper.
Arrange vegetables in single layer on prepared pans. Brush vegetables with olive oil. Roast vegetables until just tender; 10 minutes for eggplant, 12 minutes for zucchini and summer squash, and 18 minutes for tomatoes (tomatoes should be soft and starting to break). Prepare vegetables in batches if necessary.
Oil a 2-quart square baking dish. Layer vegetables in dish, sprinkling with salt, pepper, and herbs between layers, and alternating direction of layers. Press layers down. Bake, uncovered, 30 minutes. Let stand 15 minutes before cutting. Spoon a small amount of pan juices over top of each serving. Makes 6 servings.