Several weeks ago I got a care package from my parents. In addition to mom’s delicious cookies, Uncle Kenneth’s coffee and some nori rice crackers, I had a special request for these home grown beauties:

Mom and Dad’s vanilla

Gorgeous, plump pods of flavor-packed vanilla! My parents have several vanilla plants growing outside the house. They’re orchid plants, and are not easy to cultivate because they require self-pollination from a specific type of insect. To make it even more difficult, the flowers bloom for only one day, making the window of opportunity rather small for natural reproduction. My dad keeps an eye out for blooming buds, so when the opportunity arises, he uses a ball-point pen to transport the microscopic pollen from stamen to pistil, then lets nature take care of the rest.  Here’s the ripening fruit of the plant several days after pollination, the dried blossoms are shriveled and ready to fall off the ends:

Vanilla plant, image source: http://www.orchidsasia.com/vanil16.htm.

Pretty amazing, isn’t it? And after several months of staying on the vine, they are ready to be harvested, dried, and used in your culinary delights.

Everybody is familiar with the distinct taste of vanilla, which is often second-banana to chocolate (did you know that both were cultivated by the Aztecs?)  and we often take this rather nondescript flavor for granted. But vanilla is a truly wonderful spice that not only gives its own easily recognizable flavor, but enhances others, including chocolate.

Chocolate just wouldn’t be chocolate without vanilla.

So how about adding some vanilla to your life? Let’s start of with the basics:

Vanilla Bean Syrup – Bring 1/2 cup water and 1 cup sugar to a boil in a small saucepan. Remove from heat. Add 1 split vanilla bean, scraping both pod and seeds into mixture, stir and let cool. Reserve the vanilla pod and dry completely before storing for other uses. Pour into clean glass jar, keep tightly closed and let sit one day before using.

Vanilla Bean Paste – Scrape a vanilla bean and mix just enough light corn syrup to make a paste. Can use in place of vanilla extract.

Vanilla Extract – In a jar or bottle, add 2 cups of vodka and 6 vanilla beans. Store in a cool, dark place and let age for 4-6 months, shaking the bottle once a week to distribute the flavors.

Vanilla Sugar – Place a split pod in your sugar container for a delicate fragrance and hint of vanilla flavor.

Beautiful glistening seeds from a Tahitian vanilla pod.

Now that you have the basics, here are some recipes to use your newly made concoctions:

Vanilla Cream Soda – Mix vanilla bean syrup with cold seltzer and add a couple drops of lemon juice.

Panna Cotta (from epicurious.com)In a small bowl, sprinkle 1 envelope (1 teaspoon) gelatin over 2 tablespoons water, let soften for about ten minutes. Menwhile, in a medium saucepan bring 2 1/2 cups heavy cream, 1/2 cup whole milk and 1/3 cup sugar to a boil, stirring constantly. Remove from heat. Stir in gelatin until dissolved. Split a 2″ piece vanilla pod, scraping seeds and adding into milk mixture (alternatively, add 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract.) Divide between four ramekins, chill 8 hours or overnight. (options: float 1 star anise in each ramekin, serve with fresh mixed berries, or top with fruit compote.)

Spiced Vanilla Peach Jam – This was an accident when I tried making Rem Cooks’ Vanilla Peach Butter by following his recipe for Spiced Peach Preserves. As I was heating the peaches I thought, “Boy this smells great…but where’s the vanilla?” Looking over his post, I realized it was the wrong recipe! After pulling up the correct recipe I decided it would be easier to make a few modifications and simply add the vanilla bean. It still came out tasty, especially by following his lead and having it with cream cheese on sourdough toast…delicious!

Ingredients:

2 cups peaches peeled, pitted & roughly chopped
2/3 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
tiny pinch nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon Kosher salt
4″ piece vanilla bean, split and scraped
4 teaspoons lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon lemon zest

Directions:

Put everything in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Boil for 15 minutes or until peaches break up into smaller pieces. Remove from heat and let cool before transferring to a clean glass jar. Will keep in refrigerator for about 10 days.

This peach jam is great on toast, or as a glaze for chicken, ham, or roast pork loin.

In addition to all this sweetness, vanilla can also be used to enhance the flavor of savory dishes, and on Wednesday I will post a special recipe I concocted to celebrate my second wedding anniversary! Here’s a sneak peek at what I’m talking about:

Vanilla can season even the most savory of dishes!

More vanilla goodness coming your way, so stay tuned!

Last month I started planting some lettuce and herbs around the outside of our house. I realize I don’t have much patience and would rather get trays of plants than start them from seed, because I seem to have forgotten what I planted in the trays. I think it was sweet and red rubin basil, but I’ll know for sure in a few weeks!

So far the lettuce has been untouched by insects and animals and the kale is taking a while to grow:

Mostly lettuce with cilantro up front, lemon grass, green onion & chives to the right and scrawny kale way in the back.

I also planted some easy-growing mint and sage in a planter by the patio, and this beautiful curry plant is doing great on its own:

The elegant curry plant: looks like rosemary, smells like chicken.

Now, both my parents were in the agriculture business, growing tomatoes and roses and a lot of other plants and produce. You would think that I inherited some of their talent, but I always found it a struggle to keep mint plants alive and can’t figure out why my basil won’t grow. This time it’s a little different, so I’m hoping my attempt at growing plants in the ground rather than black plastic buckets will break my streak of bad luck.

So while I wait for my plants to grow, I’d like to announce the winner of the Frito-Lay Gluten-Free Prize Pack! The winner was determined through an unbiased Canadian coin-toss. And now, the winner of this awesome giveaway is…..

Gabby from The Veggie Nook!

Congratulations on winning this awesome gluten-free prize pack! I’m sure you’ll enjoy munching on these tasty Tostitos and Lay’s chips while learning more about eating Gluten-Free on a Shoestring, woo hoo!

Now, earlier I mentioned those mystery seedlings possibly being basil plants (I really hope they are!) Here’s a good recipe to try with any type of basil pesto you may have. The walnuts (or pecans, if you prefer) give it a nice, hearty crunch and the addition of mushrooms give it a more meaty texture.

Walnut Pesto with Mushrooms – serves 2

1/3 cup walnuts or pecans, lightly toasted and broken into pieces
1/4 – 1/3 cup cream
1/2 cup basil pesto
1 cup sliced mushrooms
1/2 cup shredded Parmesan cheese
additional walnuts or pecans for garnish
Cooked noodles

Instructions:

In a blender, add walnuts and  pesto, blend until combined and nuts are chopped, but do not puree.

In a medium frying pan, sautee sliced mushrooms in olive oil over medium heat until softened, about 3-5 minutes. Add pesto and walnuts, stir for about a minute. Slowly add cream and stir to combine for about 2 minutes or until it just begins to simmer.

Serve over cooked noodles, sprinkle with parmesan cheese and extra walnuts or pecans.


It’s that time of week again, folks! Time to sit back and enjoy another episode of “What I Ate Wednesday” (WIAW,) sponsored by the good folks at Peas and Crayons, where “Food is art and you are what you eat. So eat healthy…eat happy…eat pretty!”

(applause!)

Today I’ll be featuring a recipe that I’ve been making for the past ten years or so. It’s the longest-running recipe I’ve had, and is the only recipe I have ever memorized. It’s been my favorite for weekend breakfasts and presenting them as thank-you gifts, and I like to think that I’m pretty darn good at making them. So deciding to change up an old standard like this one by making it gluten-free made me a bit nervous.

But before I get further into this discussion, here’s a quick run-down of foods from the past couple of days:

Breakfast was coffee (no photo but it was dark, sweet and delicious) and a home-baked treat of my featured food, gluten-free scones (recipe below):

 

Cheddar & Asiago cheese scones in my husband’s childhood milk cup. :)

Lunch was a mixed-greens salad with some mixed-colored veggies. I was never a big fan of making my own salads, so adding tons of color is a good way to have a healthy bowl of greens (and purples and reds and oranges!):

Dinner was Turkey Bean Burgers seasoned with miso paste on rice noodles tossed with seaweed & miso dressing. This was supposed to have been submitted in Monday’s Recipe Redux Challenge, but I wasn’t totally happy with how it turned out. The seaweed in the patties didn’t stand out as much as I hoped for, and the rice noodles could have used some “oomph,” perhaps with more veggies tossed in, and not just sitting under it!

Miso paste in the patties gave it a nice flavor.

Now, here’s a little more background on the scones I’m featuring today. This is a recipe I first came across ten years ago from Joy of Baking and is by far the most delicious and easiest baked good ever made. The scones have a crisp, almost flaky exterior which keeps the insides soft and flavorful. Fresh from the oven, you can split them in half and slather on some butter as the warm, steamy centers melt them into delicious oblivion.

Since I am trying to stay wheat-free as much as possible, I modified this recipe by switching out the regular flour for a gluten-free blend, courtesy of Gluten-Free Baking Classics by Annalise G. Roberts. The result? Deliciously tender, melt-in-your-mouth, crisp, flavorful bites of gluten-free indulgence!

Cream Scones, original recipe from Joy of Baking
Best if eaten within a day or two, but freeze any extras you may have tightly wrapped in foil. Defrost by leaving out for 15 minutes, then pop in toaster oven on medium setting. It will taste like it was freshly baked.

2 cups gluten-free flour mix (I used 2 parts white rice flour, 2/3 parts potato starch, 1/3 part tapioca starch)
3/4 teaspoon xanthan gum (omit if your flour mix already includes this!)
1/3 cup sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/3 cup cold, unsalted butter
add-ins (optional, see below)*
1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon heavy whipping cream
1 egg plus 1 egg yolk
1 teaspoon vanilla

*optional add-ins:
– 1/2 cup chocolate chips + 1/3 cup chopped nuts or chopped cherries
–  1/2 cup chocolate chips + 1/3 cup shredded, toasted unsweetened coconut + 1 teaspoon coconut extract
– 1/2 cup dried cherries or blueberries
– 1 cup reduced-fat shredded cheddar cheese + 1/2 cup shredded Parmesan cheese (reduce sugar to 1/4 cup)

Instructions:

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper or Silpat, set aside.

In a large bowl, mix dry ingredients with a wire whisk. Cut in butter with a pastry cutter until butter pieces are about pea-sized. With a rubber spatula, gently mix in one of the add-in ingredients listed above. Set aside.

In a measuring cup, add 1/2 cup cream, vanilla, and 1 egg. Mix until well incorporated. Add to dry ingredients and mix well. Dough should be just a little sticky. Divide dough in half, forming each into a ball. Flatten ball to a circle about 1″ thick. Cut into 8 triangles, set on cookie sheet about 1″ apart. Repeat with remaining dough.

Beat remaining egg white with 1 tablespoon cream. Using a pastry brush or back of a spoon, brush scones with egg wash.

Bake for 15-18 minutes or until tops begin to turn golden, rotating tray 180 degrees halfway through baking. Remove from oven and let sit for for a minute before transferring to serving plate. Serve warm with butter or preserves.

Cut each circle into 8 little triangles. Alternatively, you can roll out the entire dough and use a round cookie cutter.

The eggs from my sister’s chickens have a rich, yellowy-orange yolk. You can see how thick it is in the egg wash used to brush the tops of the scones.

These tender scones are delicious with coffee or tea, or even as a late night snack.