28 April 2010

vanilla: a primer

Who's got 2 thumbs and is super giddy that she received her order of vanilla today? This girl! I've mentioned before that vanilla is by far my favorite ingredient. Chocolate? Bah. In fact, most chocolate goodies taste better with vanilla in it, so there! Vanilla is king... and I may or may not have done a happy dance when I opened my box of extracts. Three vanilla extracts, to be exact. I'm guessing the average bear doesn't even know there are 3 types. Well there are: Bourbon-Madagascar, Mexican, and Tahitian.Where does vanilla come from? The short answer is: a flower. It starts with the vanilla orchid vanilla planifolia. Of the thousands of varieties of orchids out there, it is the only one that produces something edible. It's native to Mexico, but thanks to some world traveling Frenchmen, sometime in the 19th century, it made its way to the Isle of Bourbon in Madagascar. Those French folks found a way to hand pollinate the orchids, and now Madagascar is one of the biggest producers of vanilla in the world, which is why the vast majority of the vanilla you'll find in your standard grocery is Bourbon Madagscar vanilla.

Bourbon-Madagascar vanilla comes from the original Mexican vanilla v. planifolia, but since it's pollinated differently, it doesn't taste quite the same as the Mexican type. Bourbon Madagascar vanilla is Old Reliable. It has a sweet, creamy and strong flavor. It's the generic vanilla that never lets you down.

Mexican vanilla is the original V. planafolia. It grows naturally there, and is naturally pollinated by the native bees. It's produced in smaller amounts and goes by the name Mexican vanilla. This is a more mellow sweetness, smooth and strong, and then has this slight woody note to it. It's complex, more interesting than the Bourbon-Madagascar type, and thus, in my opinion, is the best (thus the extra big bottle I ordered!)

One side note about Mexican vanilla - if you do see it in Mexico, make sure it says "Pure Mexican Vanilla" and try to get it from a reputable source. I've read that some of the vanillas they sell in Mexico are mixed with the extract of the tonka bean, which can cause liver or kidney damage. The specific offender is coumarin, and it's banned by the FDA.

So that third kind... Tahitian vanilla. To be honest, I've never smelled it until today. I've read about it, which is how I know it's not the same plant as the Mexican or Bourbon vanillas. Tahitian vanilla comes from v. tahitiensis, a different strain of vanilla. It may have been a mutation, or a hybrid. Either way, it's different. Tahitian vanilla is a favorite of pastry chefs and perfume makers because, while it's not as strong in flavor as the others, it's more aromatic and floral.

So now that I've got my new extracts, guess who's going to be doing more baking! I'm so excited to experiment with the flavors and to develop my nose for them. Next time I'm going to have to get all 3 types of beans to compare!

Oh, and to be fair, there are actually more than 3 types of vanilla. These are just the 3 most popular. :-)

27 April 2010

baked garlic croutons

Remember how I said I'd post all my Easter recipes, and how I was working backwards, and yet somehow I stopped with the main course? I didn't forget the rest of my meal! Our salad course was a caesar topped with these big, crunchy, garlicy croutons. They are so good I'm featuring them by themselves.

Croutons are my favorite part of any salad, and I can happily eat a salad sans dresssing as long as there are good croutons involved. Snacks(salty+crunchy)=happy Caroline. (This is also why I love popcorn, potato chips, shoestring fries, pretzel crisps, etc.) I can eat croutons by themselves, which is exactly why I made an entire loaf's worth instead of enough for one meal. Good thing is that they keep well in a zip top bag for many days of future munching.

Garlic Croutons

1 loaf day old italian bread, cubed into big 1+" chunks (the loaf I got was so big, it made almost 100 huge cubes , thus the amount of oil listed next)
1/4 cup olive oil
4 cloves garlic
1 tsp kosher salt
1/2 tsp garlic powder
freshly ground pepper

Preheat oven to 375.

Heat the olive oil in a pan over medium-low to low heat. Smash the garlic cloves with your knife and discard the skin. Put the cloves into the oil and heat until the oil is infused with the garlicy goodness -- I let it simmer while I cut the bread - took about 10 minutes. Don't let the garlic brown.

Dump the bread cubes into a really big bowl. Drizzle the garlic infused oil over the bread, tossing regularly to ensure even coating. Season with salt, garlic powder, and a few grinds of pepper. Taste one and adjust seasoning to your liking. Spread out evenly in a single on a sheet pan. Bake for 10 minutes. Toss the croutons. Bake for 8 more minutes or until golden brown. Allow to cool.

You an also season it however you like, too - get crazy with herbs, cheeses, ranch powder, etc. Eat with your favorite salad, or on soup, or as a snack :)

22 April 2010

asparagus soup

Asparagus is one of the foods I didn't like growing up, but totally love now. I remember the first time I tasted it and went, mmmmm. I was in Austria with my mom and her cousin out at some rest stop restaurant (random, right). It was cold and rainy, and my Tito got cream of asparagus soup. He asked if I wanted some, and I peered at that green stuff and wrinkled my nose. He insisted, and I didn't want to be rude(r), so I had a sip. And it was delicious! It was creamy, surprisingly sweet, and very fresh tasting. I wanted to eat the whole thing. And that was it: I was turned on to asparagus.
Joy of joys, it's in season (thus those other posts with asparagus recently.) I couldn't find my old recipe for this, so I Googled and mashed together a bunch of different recipes to come up with this. This is a light soup, reminscent of the one I had way back when. A heavy cream would make it richer and slightly sweeter, but the evap milk has fewer calories. You can also substitute vegetable broth for the chicken broth if you want a full out vegetarian soup.

Asparagus Soup

1 lb asparagus
3 tbsp butter
1/2 onion, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 can reduced sodium chicken broth (or 2 cups)
3/4 C evaporated milk (or heavy cream)
salt and pepper to taste
Special equipment: immersion blender or food processor

Snap the tough ends from the asparagus. Cut them into 2" pieces. If you want to decorate with the tips, save 4 tips.

In a medium sized pot, melt the butter over medium heat. Sautee the onions about 3-4 minutes until it's getting soft. Add the asparagus and garlic and sautee another 5 minutes. Add the stock. Bring to a simmer, turn down the heat to med-low, cover and cook for about 20 minutes or until the asparagus is very tender. Take off the heat.

Use the immersion blender to puree the soup, or food process until pureed. Stir in the evaporated milk. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Heat back up to temperature you like. Serve with croutons. Or if you want to use the reserved tips, sautee them for a minute until tender and top the soup.

18 April 2010

spaghetti casserole

I have a go-to baked pasta recipe that is affectionately called Death by Cheesy Goodness - one serving nearly puts me in a coma. A delicious coma. It's awesome, but let me say it again - coma. So the other night I had a craving for it but didn't want to pass out, so I came up with this "lighter" recipe. Basically it's spaghetti layered with mozzarella so the cheese gets all melty in the middle, but it's not so much that I go catatonic. The good thing about this is that it can easily be adapted - use ground turkey, italian sausage, or no meat at all. Not that I'd ever got that last route since I'm a carnivore, but I suppose chopped up portabellas could work as a meaty veggie substitute. This makes a full 9x13 dish - so easily 12 servings. Enjoy!

Spaghetti Casserole

olive oil
1 onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 lb ground beef (I used 90/10)
salt, pepper, dried basil, dried oregano
1 jar/can spaghetti sauce (I used Hunt's meat flavor)
1 can diced tomatoes (with basil and oregano if you like)
16 oz part skim mozzarella, grated
grated parmesan cheese
1 box thin spaghetti
Bring a big pot of water to a boil and toss in about 2 tsp or a tbsp of salt. Drizzle oil into bottom of a large pan put over medium heat and sautee onions until soft. Add garlic and ground beef. Season with salt, pepper, basil, and oregano. Cook, breaking up the meat into small pieces, until done - taste and add seasoning as necessary. Add the spaghetti sauce and diced tomatoes to the meat, and stir to combine and allow to simmer to heat through.

Preheat oven to 350 and take out a 9x13 baking dish. When the water comes to a full rolling boil, add the spaghetti. Cook for 7-8 minutes - most boxes say 9-11 min so you want to undercook it so it comes out of the oven al dente. Turn off heat and strain the pasta then put back into pot. Add about 3/4 the sauce to the spaghetti and mix.

To assemble: Spoon a thin layer of sauce on the bottom of the baking dish. Spread half the pasta into the dish. Layer half the shredded mozzarella and enough parmesan to cover it. Add the rest of the pasta, the rest of the mozzarella, and the rest of the sauce. Grate some more paremsan on top. Bake for 30 minutes or until the edges are bubbly and cheese is melted.

15 April 2010

fish en papillote

Sounds fancy. Looks fancy. Tastes fancy. So obviously it must be... super easy to make! If you google "fish en papillote recipe," you'll find tons of recipes, some more complex than others. I opted for something less complicated: halibut seasoned with lemon, garlic and thyme, over asparagus. It took me all of 5 minutes to prepare and 10 minutes to bake. Simplicity at its finest.

Fish en papillote (in parchment) was on my Hit List of foods to make in 2010, and I can call this one a success. It's a really light meal, a quick weeknight meal. Added bonuses: asparagus is in season, fish is good for you, and this used hardly any oil. The moisture from the fish, which is sealed in the parchment while baking, will steam and cook everything else which is why you don't need much oil. Healthy too! Heart.
Fish en Papillote

1 6oz fillet of halibut
1 clove garlic, minced
1 lemon
asparagus, cut down to the same size as the halibut
olive oil
fresh thyme (I used dried, fresh will be better)
salt and pepper to taste
Special equipment: parchment paper

Preheat oven to 400. Cut 1 large piece of parchment -- enough where you can fold it in half and there's plenty of room that the fish would fit. Cut out a big heart. (I actually cut mine a little small - another 2" would have been just right.)

Slice 1/2 of the lemon into thin slices and set aside. Zest the other half. Arrange the asparagus in the middle of one half of the parchment heart. Squeeze some of the lemon juice over it, sprinkle the zest, and salt it. Lay the fish on top of the asparagus, then generously season with salt, pepper, thyme, a half the garlic clove. Or a whole one if you love garlic. Drizzle a little olive oil over it. Arrange the lemon slices on top of the fish.

Fold the other half of the parchment heart over. Fold the edges of the heart over so it seals it in. (The beginning of this video shows you.) Place on a baking sheet, and bake for about 10 minutes.
Open. Eat. (Or if you want to be fancy, transfer to a plate and eat!)

09 April 2010

my first strawberry jam

Two days ago, when it was 95 degrees and sunny, I would have told you we skipped over spring and went straight to summer. That weather (not the pound of over-ripe strawberries in the fridge that I couldn't figure out what to do with :-D) inspired me to make something summery. Glad I did because the rain last night dropped the temperature some 30 degrees, and I'm back to using my seat warmers in my car at night. My new car is so sweet. So is this jam. This is a pectin-free recipe (rough translation: no added gelatin to firm it up), which means this is a looser jam... Looks (cuz it is) home made with love. And vanilla beans. Instant love. (Aside: vanilla is easily my absolute most favorite ingredient for sweets EVER, and I'd choose it over chocolate any day. There, it's out there. Digest that. Aside over.) The vanilla adds a cozy warmth - a flavor that both mellows and complements the strawberriness. Didn't have my camera today so relied on Brandt to take this pic of it spread on a bagel with cream cheese (thanks Brandt), so no crystal clear shot of the little flecks of vanilla seeds I wish you could see throughout the jam. Check the Wash Post link below for the original recipe that has some helpful pointers on where to find beans.

One last thing - the original recipe calls for 6 lbs of berries, so I used my handy dandy math skillz to divide. This small batch recipe produces 8oz of jam. Because of that, I didn't need to sterilize the canning jar to store it.

Small Batch Strawberry Vanilla Jam
adapted from The Washington Post

1 lb strawberries, hulled and sliced
1/3 C sugar
2 vanilla beans, split and scraped

Combine all the ingredients in a bowl for 30 minutes or until a puddle of liquid forms at the bottom. Dump into a pot and cook over medium high heat. Stir it ocassionally and cook for about 15-20 minutes and looks thickened or, if you have a candy thermometer, until it hits 220 degrees. Remove and discard the vanilla beans. Either ladle it into a small glass container, or allow to cool and store in a plastic tupperware.

05 April 2010

Easter dinner recipe overload

Since I'm working backwards with my Easter dinner recipes, next up is the main course. Don't really need to explain it, just show a pretty picture and the recipes for the lamb with asparagus and roasted smashed potatoes. This is not only a great holiday meal, you can impress a date with it, too. This is me, looking out for you. Oh yeah.

Timing wise, roast the lamb first. While it's roasting, boil the potatoes. While it's resting, roast the potatoes and sautee the asparagus. Boom, you'll have a complete meal done at the same time. Booyah.

Roast Leg of Lamb
3-4 lb boneless leg of lamb, rolled and tied
2 heads garlic, of which 4 cloves pulled off and minced finely
1 tbsp lemon zest (about 1 large lemon)
2 tbsp fresh thyme, minced
1/2 tsp dried rosemary, minced
1 1/4 tsp kosher salt
1/2 tsp ground black pepper
1 tbsp olive oil

Preheat oven to 375. Combine the 4 minced cloves, zest, thyme, rosemary and olive oil and rub all over lamb. Place on roasting pan. Chop about 1/4" off the tops of the garlic heads and rub with oil and place next to the lamb. Roast for 70-80 minutes, or until meat temperature reaches 130 for medium rare. (For a chart of meat doneness, check this out. Shout out to the Reluctant Gourmet, too, for answering one of my questions about how long to put a rub on meat.)

When it reaches your desired doneness, take out and allow to rest while you roast the potatoes.

Roasted Smashed Potatoes

2 or 3 small round potatoes per person
same herbs used in the lamb for a "cohesive meal, lol" to taste
salt and pepper to taste
Boil the potatoes until you can easily stick a fork into the middle (fork tender). After you take the lamb out, turn the oven up to 450. Spread the potatoes out on a baking sheet and use a masher to smash down (you can see pics on the above link). Season with salt, pepper and herbs. Generously drizzle olive oil. Shake the pan a bit just to distribute the oil evenly on the bottom. Roast for 20 minutes or until the edges are browned and crisped.

Lemony Asparagus Tips

1 lemon, half zested and cut in half
as much asparagus as you want to eat - about 1/2 lb per person
kosher salt
olive oil

Cut asparagus tips into about 5" stalks. Heat olive oil to medium high heat. Cook until the thick end is soft enough for a fork to easily poke, but the stalk has some snap to it. Take off heat. Toss with a pinch of salt, lemon zest, and the juice of 1/2 of the lemon. Serve hot.

04 April 2010

Easter dessert: mini pavlova with lemon curd and fresh berries

Hoppy Easter!!! I'm pretty sure my tummy is distended from a fantastic Easter dinner. That I made :-D

Over the next couple days I'll post some recipes of that 3.5 course meal. I'll begin with dessert first. Actually I already started on posting my dessert recipe 2 days ago - that lovely lemon curd was part of this crisp and airy pavlova. You can see that yellow curd peeking out from under the fresh berries. Pairing it with tea made for a bright, light finish to a very filling meal.
Note: Make sure all your cooking utensils - the mixing bowl, whisk, your hands - are oil free and spotless. Oil is the arch nemesis that thwarts any meringue's attempt at greatness. Also, when separating the eggs, no yolks allowed! Not even a speck - pure egg whites only.

adapted from Cooking Light

4 egg whites, room temp
1/4 tsp cream of tarter
3/4 C sugar
1 vanilla bean
chopped pistachios (optional)

Preheat oven to 250. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper and draw 4 4"-circles (or whatever shape you'd like) on them. Space them well because the meringues will spread. Flip over so it's drawn side down. Split the vanilla seed and remove seeds. Mix into sugar so evenly distributed.

Put egg whites and cream of tarter in a mixing bowl and. using the whisk attachment, start on medium speed and gradually ingrease to high, and beat until foamy. Then add sugar a tablespoon at a time while it continues to beat. Beat until stiff stiff peaks form - that is, stick a spoon in there (while the beater is off, duh), pull out quickly, hold peak side up, and if the peak stays straight and doesn't lean at all, you are done.

Evenly divide the meringues between the 8 circles. Make them nest-like: edges are higher than the center, so you can put the filling in later. This is where you can sprinkle with the pistachios, too, if you want nuts on it. Oh, and these are pretty close together - there was less than a centimeter between them after baking - you may want to put more space between them.
Bake for 1 hour, rotating halfway through for even baking. Turn off oven, leave the meringues in there, and leave for another 2 hours. Remove and allow to cool. Carefully remove from parchment.
To assemble the pavlova: spread about 2 tbsp of the lemon curd in the center of the meringue nest. Arrange the fresh berries on top. Serve immediately.
OR: The meringues will keep, topping free, in an airtight container for a couple days. I made the meringues on Saturday and put it together Sunday night. Easy breezy.

02 April 2010

lovely lemon curd

Since I'm making a full out Easter dinner this year, I'm getting ahead of the curve by making anything I can ahead of time. First thing on that list: lemon curd. On Sunday it'll be paired with berries on top of a pavlova. It turned out smooth, creamy, sweet and tart. Luscious, actually, and lovely indeed.

I'm quite excited to eat it, actually... so excited I made 2 batches tonight :-) It came together so quickly - about 20 min start to finish - that making it twice was a snap. As you can see it doesn't make that much, about 10 oz per recipe, but if we don't finish it all on Easter, I can have it with scones or cookies or inside cupcakes or on waffles. Or, ya know, I can give it away. It'd make a really fantastic gift for a food lover. Ahem. Anyways, enjoy!

Lemon Curd
adapted from Joy of Baking

1/3 C fresh lemon juice (about 2 large lemons)
1 tbsp lemon zest (about 1 lemon)
1/2 C plus 1 tbsp sugar
3 eggs
4 tbsp butter, room temp, cut into 4 pieces
Special equipment: fine mesh strainer, double boiler (optional)

If using a double boiler, bring water to a simmer in the bottom pot and whisk together the juice, zest, sugar and eggs in the top layer. Otherwise, in a stainless steel bowl, whisk together the lemon juice, zest*, sugar and eggs. Fill a small pot with about 2" of water and bring to a boil. As soon as it comes to a boil, reduce the heat to a simmer and put the bowl on top. Make sure the water doesn't touch the bowl.

Cook, whisking continuously until it thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon - about 8-10 minutes. Strain the curd into a clean bowl. Mix in butter pats, stirring to melt and combine completely. Cover with plastic wrap so a film doesn't form, and allow to cool.

* Note: In the first batch I only combined the juice, eggs, and sugar in the 1st step. I added the zest to the custard with the butter and didn't strain it out. It turned tarter for sure, but zest kept getting caught in the back of my throat. Ew, annoying. The second time I made it I did as written - putting it in early then straining it out. It produces a mellower flavor with a decidedly smoother, luscious curd. Take your pick.

Should keep in the fridge 1-2 weeks, or in the freezer for a couple months.