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Homemade Vanilla Extract

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Homemade Vanilla Extract
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I wrote this post for a blog swap with the lovely Autumn Giles of Autumn Makes and Does. Her blog is really wonderful--clean, unpretentious, and loaded with simple recipes. You can also visit her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

I've been making homemade vanilla extract for a few years now. I started making it because it was easy, and because I go through a lot of vanilla. Being able to make a quart or more of vanilla extract at a time seemed like a great idea. After all, it doesn't go bad, and if you're savvy about sourcing your vanilla beans, you come out ahead cost-wise.

I liked my homemade extract so much that I started making it to give as gifts during the holidays and to have on hand for those "oops, I forgot that your birthday was today" moments. In my experience, most people are completely blown away that you made vanilla extract. I often have friends gushing about their latest baking project to me and how they used my vanilla in it. It's also gratifying to hear about more inventive uses for vanilla. My non-baking friends use it in their coffee or oatmeal.

To say that making vanilla extract is easy is an understatement. The only part of the process that requires any presence of mind at all is buying the vanilla beans. As the holidays get closer, you'll be glad for a project that doesn't come from a Pinterest board or require a trip to the mall. Quite the opposite. All you need to do is go to a liquor store for high proof alcohol, where they also have fine things like bourbon and gin and...bourbon. Sometimes a bottle of bourbon just jumps in your basket without you noticing, and isn't that nice?

In all seriousness, source your vanilla beans now, grab a bottle of something high proof, and you're most of the way there. Vanilla extract does require time to make, but it's hands-off. Once the beans are in a jar with the alcohol, all you have to do is shake it occasionally until December, when it's ready to go into bottles for gifting. Making cute little labels is optional, but I think presentation is always important.

Other great gift ideas: Worcestershire Sauce, Fermented Louisiana-Style Hot Sauce, Quince Jelly

Cut in half lengthwise:
           25 vanilla beans*
Using the tip of a spoon, scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean pods. Place the pods and seeds in a quart jar. Cover with:
           4 cups high-proof alcohol such as Everclear, vodka, or high-proof rum
Close the jar tightly and shake once a day or so (this isn't scientific, so no need to set an alert on your phone for this). When the alcohol is deep brown, about 1 month to 1 1/2 months later, the vanilla is ready for bottling.
To bottle, strain the vanilla bean pods out of the extract. If desired, you can strain the extract through a jelly bag to remove all the little black seeds, but I like to leave them in. Transfer the extract to a measuring cup with a spout. Pour the extract into tiny bottles (I order 2oz and 4oz bottles for this), and place one of the vanilla bean pods that you strained out of the extract in each bottle (the bottles are short, so you'll have to cut the pod in half).

*I buy my vanilla beans in bulk from an online retailer that I've had good luck with. However, there are lots of places you can buy bulk vanilla beans. Simply Google "bulk vanilla beans" and you'll come up with a lot of sources. They're still not cheap, but they're vastly cheaper this way than buying them two at a time. For this project, 1/4 pound vanilla beans is plenty. I usually buy 1/2 pound because I use vanilla beans frequently and like having extra on hand. 

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Last-Minute Thanksgiving Primer
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Ramp and Nettle Pesto

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A Tale of Versatility and A Special Seasonal Pesto
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One of my favorite things about the Joy of Cooking, even way before I became part of the family and started working on the book, is that the recipes are always a great place to start. Say you want to make a chicken casserole, but with your own touches. All you really need to do is find the basic recipe in JOY, then improvise a little. It really helps to have a guide even when you want to do your own thing.

And thus my ongoing love-hate relationship with uber-specific cookbooks. Recipes that call for particular varieties of heirloom vegetables, or for really expensive ingredients in small quantities, or even just the "Asian Pear Cardamom-Scented Layer Cake with Brown Butter Cider Glaze" syndrome--the proliferation of hyphens and adjectives that ensure a recipe you might make once, but that will also require a special shopping trip and a special occasion to warrant making it.

Not that I have anything against Asian pears, cardamom, brown butter, or cider. But I do feel that these sorts of recipes leave nothing to the imagination. I like to innovate on my own in the kitchen. Thanks for having faith in my ability to do so, JOY.

This recipe, for instance, comes directly from JOY's pesto recipe. It's basic enough--basil, parmesan, pine nuts, garlic, olive oil, and salt. But none of these elements are fixed. The basil can be replaced by almost any green, from spinach to arugula to kale; a variety of cheeses could take the place of parmesan; walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, etc. can supersede the pine nuts (and, frankly, with pine nuts clocking in at around $20/lb, I would recommend using something else).

This time, because these things are in abundance at our house right now, I used nettles and ramps in place of the basil and garlic, and sunflower seeds stood in for pine nuts. I had parmesan on hand, but if I hadn't, I may have used a very sharp white cheddar, romano, or even goat cheese or feta.

A note about foraging: never eat anything unless you can positively identify it. Nettles are one of the easier plants to find in the wild--if you've ever been stung by them you won't soon forget what they look like. They're also plentiful, and you need not worry about overharvesting them. Also, never eat plants from an area that has been sprayed with herbicides or other chemicals.

Where ramps are concerned, unless you live in the Appalachian region or a major metropolitan area with really good grocers, you will probably not be able to find ramps. If you have the privilege of being able to hunt them, please read this article first. The jist is, never pick more than 10% of the ramps in a given patch, and cut them off above the roots to ensure that they can come back in future years. Ramps are very slow-growing and slow-spreading plants that are in danger of being overharvested due to the current ramp fervor. Be conscientious.

If ramps are out of the question, simply use a few cloves of garlic or a handful of garlic chives. The flavor is different, but your pesto will still taste delicious.

Other articles you might enjoy: Nettle Champ (Mashed Potatoes with Nettles), Sweet and Spicy Ramp Bacon, Rose Hip Tea with Hibiscus and Ginger

*Note: Use care when handling nettles. Their little stingers are not terribly dangerous, but they can cause a great deal of discomfort. I like to wear rubber gloves or use tongs to handle them. Blanching, however, neutralizes their sting.
A particularly nice feature of this pesto is that, while basil will quickly brown, nettles make a bright green pesto that remains fresh-looking for days. Thus, there's no need to cover the surface of the pesto with olive oil.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Have an ice bath ready. Plunge into the boiling water for a few seconds:
           2 cups very tightly packed nettles (about 3 ounces)
Remove the nettles to the ice bath using a slotted spoon or a pair of tongs. Drain the nettles thoroughly, pressing them to squeeze out as much water as possible.
Combine the nettles in a food processor with:
           1/2 cup grated Parmesan
            1/3 cup sunflower seeds
            7 ramps, roughly chopped (about 1 1/2 ounces)
With the machine running, slowly add:
            1/2 cup olive oil, or as needed
If the pesto seems dry (it should be a thick paste), add a little more olive oil. Season to taste with:
Use immediately, or cover, and refrigerate for up to 1 week.

Spring Niçoise

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A Niçoise for Springtime
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If you are in the enviable position of having too much asparagus than you know what to do with--or just have a few left over from last night's dinner--try our springtime riff on the ever-versatile Salade Niçoise. This Provençal classic traditionally includes haricots verts (those succulent, skinny French green beans) and tomatoes-- ingredients we usually associate with summer. Replacing these with lightly cooked asparagus spears and springtime greens (we used spinach, arugula, and watercress) makes for a delicious and hearty entree salad. Those looking for an even heartier version to serve as a one-course dinner can replace the canned tuna with one small, seared or grilled tuna steak per person.  Just plate one steak on each bed of greens, toss the potatoes, asparagus, anchovies, olives, and hard-cooked eggs with the vinaigrette, nestle them around the steak, and sprinkle with the capers and parsley.

That said, feel free to let your imagination run wild when interpreting a Niçoise to your whim (and pantry). Any leftover grilled or seared fish can take the place of tuna, and any number of fresh veggies may be added... salad turnips and radishes come to mind as they start looking really good this time of year. Smoked salmon? Excellent. Poached eggs instead of hard-boiled? Decadent. We love experimenting with big salads!


Cook in a large pot of boiling salted water until tender, about 20 minutes:
     6 small new potatoes
Remove with a slotted spoon and let cool. Meanwhile, add to the pot and boil until bright green but still crisp, 2 to 3 minutes:
     1 pound small asparagus spears, trimmed
Cool in an ice bath and drain well. Place in a medium bowl. Cut the cooled potatoes into ½-inch slices and add to the beans. Whisk together in a small bowl:
     3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
     2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
     Salt and black pepper to taste
Add in a slow, steady stream, whisking constantly:
     6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Drizzle one-quarter of the dressing over potatoes and beans and gently toss to coat. Arrange on a large platter:
     A generous bed of assorted greens, washed and dried off (arugula, watercress, and spinach are good choices)
Drizzle another quarter of the dressing on top. Arrange the green beans and potatoes on the platter, along with:
     5 hard-boiled eggs, halved
     6 ounces canned, pouched, or oil-packed tuna, drained and flaked
Drizzle remaining dressing. Scatter over top:
     ½ cup good, pitted olives (Niçoise olives are traditional, but use whichever you like best)
     ¼ cup minced parsley
     2 tablespoons drained capers
     2 to 4 anchovy fillets, rinsed and patted dry
Sprinkle with:
     Salt and black pepper to taste

Texas Caviar

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Bean dip, un-pureéd and enlivened
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As a fresh contrast to the rich foods usually served for the Super Bowl, we're here to remind you: Texas Caviar is absolutely delicious. Studded with tomatoes, chiles, and fresh herbs, this "caviar" straddles the line bertween dip, salad, and salsa. It is a perfect accompaniment to tortilla or pita chips, and it plays nicely with the Crispy Potato Skins as either a topping or accompaniment. A pleasing alternative to the usual pureed bean dip, which can quickly become heavy and less than appetizing. This dish can also be made ahead. In fact, the longer it sits, the better it gets.

Combine in a large bowl:
   Three 16-ounce cans black-eyed peas, rinsed and drained
    One 6-ounce jar pimientos, chopped, with juice
    (3 fresh or canned jalapeño peppers, seeded and chopped)
    1 cup chopped tomatoes
    (1 green bell pepper, seeded and chopped)
    3 garlic cloves, minced
    1⁄2 cup sliced scallions
    1⁄4 cup chopped parsley
    1 tablespoon chopped oregano
    1 tablespoon chopped cilantro
    1 tablespoon hot pepper sauce
    1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
    1 teaspoon black pepper
In a seperate bowl combine:
   1/2 teaspoon salt
    1/8 teaspoon black pepper
    1/4 cup red wine vinegar or fresh lemon juice
Whisk until blended. Add gradually, whisking constantly after each addition:
   3/4 cup olive oil
Combine vinegar mixture with black-eyed pea mixture. 


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Superbowl Extravaganza

For whatever reason, Super Bowl is when most of us get reaquainted with the fine art of multi-hour, free-form snacking. Chili, wings, dips, canapes, crudites, sandwiches, nuts... anything is welcome on the communal coffee table so long as it agrees with beer and requires minimal attention to consume. I suppose the strong flavors we crave is our way of compensating for this high level of distraction, a way for each bite to register amidst the anticipation, the cheering, the booing.

Crispy Potato Skins

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Potato Skins: The convenient, top-with-anything, flavor delivery vehicle
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Skin is where all the nutrients are, right? You can justify plenty of guilt-inducing toppings if you just have the right mindset.

A good old standby, perfect for dipping, dunking, or topping, potato skins are extremely versatile. The recipe below is of the all-time favorite Tex-Mex variety, but potato skins are s particularly good blank canvas, yielding themselves to all manner of cheeses (Cheddar, Pepper Jack, Swiss, Blue, or even chunks of Camembert or Saint Andre for those of you who love smellier cheeses), salsas, bacon crumbles, chopped greenery (scallions, chives, cilantro, oregano, tarragon, or parsley), not to mention sour cream.

If the skin-nutrient argument is not winning you over, skip the cheese-melting step and try topping each skin with a bit of Greek salad: well-chopped romaine, thinly-sliced red or green onions, chopped kalamata olives, crumbled feta, and halved cherry tomatoes tossed with a simple vinaigrette.


Bake until tender:
   Four 8-ounce baking potatoes
Let cool completely. Cut each potato lengthwise into quarters. With a teaspoon, scoop out most of the pulp, leaving a 1⁄4-inch shell. Arrange the potato skins on a baking sheet, cut side up. Combine:
   6 tablespoons butter, melted
   1 tablespoon chili powder and/or 2 teaspoons finely minced garlic

Brush on the potato skins. Season generously with:
The potatoes can be covered loosely and refrigerated up to 12 hours. Shortly before serving, set a rack in the upper third of the oven and preheat the oven to 450°F. Bake the potato skins until very brown and crisp, about 30 minutes. Sprinkle with:
   1 cup shredded Monterey Jack or Cheddar (4 ounces)
   (8 slices bacon, cooked until crisp and crumbled)

Return to the oven until the cheese begins to brown, about 5 minutes. Serve at once, accompanied with:
   Sour cream, any salsa, and cilantro

Pumpkin and Black-Eyed Pea Cakes

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Pumpkin and Black-Eyed Pea Cakes
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We like to-do lists around here. We have them for long-term projects and little piddly things like "water plants" or "thaw chicken." We are children of a digital era, and so we use handy software programs to keep our lists in. This gives them the aura of organization, perhaps making the whole affair even more treacherous than old-fashioned, pen-and-paper to-do lists.

The main problem with this strategy is that, after about a month of making to-do lists, you start to lose perspective on which list you should be looking at (nevermind the lists that cross-reference other lists). And in-between all the to-do lists, you start to amass a collection of try-this-recipe, and read-this-article lists. At a point, the pile of lists on our digital desk begins to resemble a Robert Rauschenberg collage gone awry.

It sounds horrific, I know, but we muddle through somehow. The only real tragedy is that a lot of the really fascinating stuff gets lost. I recently rediscovered some lists I made a good eight months ago of recipes I wanted to try from new cookbooks. Ditto some really lovely-looking recipes from blogs I follow. Fortunately, one of these lists happened to be in the right place at the right time, and the stars aligned for me to try something new.

I have a strange weakness for panfried cakes of all kinds. Combine this with a belief that leftovers are fodder for experimentation, and you have a motley crew of patties, croquettes, and fritters, all geared towards making something new from something old. Sometimes, these things don't work out the way I'd hoped, but generally fritters are very accommodating foods, and even the ones that don't hold together very well can be quite tasty.

This week, I had a bunch of black-eyed peas and some puréed pumpkin on the leftovers shelf in the fridge. Two very disparate items, I know, but destined to become one, nonetheless. These light vegetarian cakes are perfect as a main course or as part of a larger meal. I ate mine on a bed of greens with some salsa spooned over them, but I can see them equally at home on a rice bowl, or tucked inside a wrap or tortilla. Season them as you like--I used garam masala because it's a personal favorite, but you could go for some chili powder, five-spice powder, or even herbes de Provence. Throw in some chopped spinach or kale for a chlorophyll kick, or add a minced hot pepper. You could also take this opportunity to add any leftover grains lurking about your fridge--rice, quinoa, millet, amaranth, wheat berries, etc. would all work here. There are only about a thousand directions you could take this.

I used pumpkin purée from a pumpkin I roasted myself, but canned will work just as well. If using "homemade" pumpkin purée, be sure to let it drain for 30 minutes or so as it tends to be more watery than canned.

Other articles you might enjoy: Chopped Winter Salad, Stuffed Collard Leaves, Roasted Tomato, Herb, and Goat Cheese Quiche, Salsa Fresca With Corn

Adapted from the Sprouted Kitchen blog.

Combine in a large bowl:
           2 cloves garlic, minced
            3 scallions, chopped
            1/2 cup pumpkin purée
            2 tablespoons olive oil
            2 teaspoons garam masala or your spice blend of choice
            3/4 teaspoon salt
            1/2 teaspoon black pepper
            1 egg or 2 tablespoons flax meal to make this vegan
Add and stir to combine thoroughly:
           1/3 cup bread crumbs or oat flour to make this gluten-free
In another bowl, coarsely mash:
           2 cups cooked black-eyed peas (equal to a 15-ounce can, drained)
Stir the beans into the pumpkin mixture. Heat in a nonstick skillet over medium:
           2 tablespoons vegetable oil
Using a 1/4-cup measure, form the mixture into cakes, and cook in the hot oil until golden brown on the underside, about 4 minutes. Flip the cakes, press them down gently with your spatula, and cook for another 2 minutes or so, until golden brown. Serve warm.

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