Thursday, July 28, 2011

Who Loves Ya, Honey?

  Alright, let's see what new project we can start.  I still have some of those great vanilla beans I ordered - and this time, I'll share my source, later in the post.  I've been browsing, asking for suggestions, and some wonderful gals over at the Kittencal's Kitchen forums what to do with my vanilla bounty, and Swedish Chef and MaMere suggested this magical elixir called Love Honey. I headed over to check it out, and it sounded fantastic.  So guess what we're making today? 

  Love Honey!  This recipe has been scaled up for 12 oz from the original 8 oz, and I'm leaving out the cardamom from the source recipe.  I don't have anything against cardamom, mind you.  I just do have a thing against paying $8.50 for a bottle when I just need a pinch.  To check out the original, go visit EdsGirlAngie's recipe here:

Love Honey

12 oz honey
3 cinnamon sticks, broken in half
1 1/2 teaspoons whole cloves
2-3 pieces of lemon rind
1 vanilla bean
3/8 teaspoon ground ginger

  In a small pot, pour the honey.  Heat over low heat for just a minute or two.  In a jar, or in my case - honey bear, put the spices in.  Pour the slightly heated honey over the spices and seal tightly.  Store for 3-4 weeks before using to let the flavors blend.

Notes - Just a word on how I prepped my vanilla bean and lemon rind.  As per MaMere's advice, I took a sharp knife and just scored my vanilla bean with about 4 slashes.  And the lemon was done simply with a vegetable peeler, just taking the yellow rind.  Once you get down into the white pith, you begin to get very bitter flavors.  I enjoy a lemon flavor, so I went with 3 strips for my honey bear.

  The hard part? Waiting.  I'm really curious to how this tastes.  The spices were rich and heady just putting them into the container.


  Now back to the first vanilla project we started.  We're at day 21!  Wanna see how it's progressed?

  Seven days into our vanilla extract mellowing, and wow!  Look how much color our vodka has taken on.  It's becoming a lovely amber shade, and more beans have come away from the pod during the jar's weekly shake.  I was pleasantly surprised how it is matured already; I was not expecting to see this kind of coloring this early in the process.

  Today marks week 3.  The color has become richer and darker as time as passed.  I bet the flavor has, too!  Patience, grasshopper, patience.


  I realized much later after my post where I started my vanilla extract, I forgot to give you links to my supplier.  I purchased my vanilla beans on Ebay.  Yep, Ebay.  Now, hold up.  This is a very reputable vendor, that comes highly recommended: Vanilla Products USA.  They also have a website storefront, as well.  Vanilla Products actually has 2 separate stores on Ebay - one for vanilla, and the second for other things, although, there are some smaller packages of beans on the second account, which is where I bought my dozen Tahitian beauties.  (Seller - greenerdogjr)  (Seller - vanillaproducts)

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Creamed Chicken with Cornmeal Biscuits

  This is a fine example of Southern comfort food.  Simple milk gravy and chicken are plenty fine, but the cornmeal cheddar biscuits really make this one a keeper.  The slightly sweet biscuit has a wholesome tooth from a bit of cornmeal, and the cheddar rounds it all out.

Creamed Chicken with Cornmeal Biscuits

1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breast, cubed or shredded
1 tablespoon vegetable oil or cooking spray
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
2 cups milk (I use whole for this part)
3 cups baking mix (like Bisquick or Pioneer Brand)
3/4 cup plain yellow cornmeal
1/2 cup shredded sharp cheddar (2 ounces by weight)
4 1/2 teaspoons sugar
1 cup low-fat milk (I use skim)
flour for dusting

  Preheat your oven to 400°.  I like to start this recipe off by making the biscuits first, so I can keep my attention when we start making the gravy.  In a large mixing bowl, add the baking mix, cornmeal, cheddar, and sugar.  Give it a good mix and pour in the 1 cup of low-fat milk.  Stir the biscuit dough, just until moistened.  The dough will come together when you knead, which is our next step.

  Sprinkle some flour out on the surface you are going to use to knead the dough.  Turn the dough out of the bowl on to the floured surface and knead the dough about 8-10 times.  Pat or roll out the dough so that it's about 1/2 inch thick.  Find a 2 1/2 inch round cutter and dip it into some flour and begin cutting out the biscuits.  I find 8 biscuits are a perfect fit for my 10 inch pan.

  Now we can turn our attention to the chicken.  In a small mixing bowl, put the chicken, flour, salt and pepper.  Toss until all the chicken is coated.  Take a oven-proof skillet, like cast iron, and heat the pan with oil (or spray with the cooking spray, if you prefer.)  Dump the floured chicken into the pan and start stirring.  The flour will be difficult to see as it cooks into the oil. Just allow this to cook for short time only - maybe 30 seconds, when you are sure the flour is in the oil.  Pour in the 2 cups of milk.  Stir constantly and bring the milk to a boil.  At this point, you should have a thickened gravy on your hands.  Move the pan to a cool spot on the stove and lay the cut biscuits on top of the chicken and gravy.  Put the pan in the heated oven to bake for 15 to 18 minutes, just until the biscuits take on a nice, golden color.  Let it sit for 10 minutes before serving.

  I like mine served up with a simple salad.  I hope you like this as much as we do at home!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Spinach-Basil Pesto

  Summertime, especially here in the south, brings the hot, sunny days, slows the blood in our veins, and brings on a hunger for lighter, brighter flavors.  Pesto hits the spot with its fragrant herbs, toasted nuts, and luscious olive oil.  You can serve this versatile sauce on pasta, as a spread, or mix with mayo for sandwiches.  This recipe takes advantage of both spinach and basil for this particular version of pesto.   

Spinach-Basil Pesto

1 1/2 cups baby spinach
3/4 cup basil leaves
1/2 cup walnut pieces
2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped into 3-4 pieces each
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon grated lemon zest
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil, divided
1/2 cup grated fresh Parmesan cheese

Special equipment - food processor

  To begin, toast the walnut pieces.  This is an easy process that really brings out the flavor of the nuts.  Take a small skillet and bring the heat up to medium.  Toss in the nuts.  No oil, no cooking spray - just the nuts.  Give them an occasional shake and take them off the heat as soon as you smell the walnuts. This will only take a couple of minutes.  Toasting brings the oils to the forefront and brings a much more complex taste to the nuts. 

  Set up the food processor and dump in the spinach, basil, toasted walnuts, garlic, salt, pepper, lemon juice, lemon zest, and 2 tablespoons of the olive oil.  Pulse until the mixture is nearly smooth, taking the time to stop and scrape down the sides with a spatula a time or two. At this point, drizzle the rest of the olive oil in as the processor is churning.  Once all the oil is added, stop the processor, stir in the grated cheese and serve.

  When I serve it on pasta, I normally use a thin spaghetti or angel hair.  The pesto will loosen up a bit when you add it to hot noodles, but if you want the sauce a tad more loose, add a little olive oil when you are stirring the sauce together with the pasta.  Of course, extra cheese on top isn't going to hurt anything, either.

  To store the leftovers, there are a couple of options.  If you plan on using all the pesto in the next few days, drizzle a little olive oil on the top, cover and stash in the refrigerator.  If you plan on more long term storage in the freezer, skip adding in the Parmesan before freezing.  Spoon into an ice cube tray and into a heavy-duty freezer bag once the cubes are solid.  Add in the cheese when you thaw the sauce for use.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Great Vanilla Bean Endeavour

  I'm in perfect agreement when Alton Brown laments the conception that vanilla is mediocre, nothing special, meh, just plain, well, vanilla.  I just don't know how something so fragrant and exotic can be seen as so-so.  Sadly, I think many of us have been jaded on experiences with artificial flavorings, which sometimes come from wood pulp.  Yep, wood pulp.  I can see how the magic is lost in that case. 

  Vanilla beans are pods from a type of orchid that originated in Mexico.  Now, vanilla pods are cultivated in several places across the globe, and are frequently classified from where they are grown, as each area adds subtleties to the flavor.  Among the most well-known types are Mexican, Bourbon/Madagascar, West Indian, and Tahitian.  Harvesting vanilla pods is no easy feat, hence the price that comes second to saffron in the spice market.  But there are some reputable dealers out there with fair prices if you are willing to do a bit of research.

What to Look for:
  A good quality bean will be plump, slightly oily, flexible, and fragrant.  Old pods will be brittle and dry.
  What can you do with them?  Well, lots of things.  My first experiment with vanilla beans started today.  I'm beginning my first batch of homemade vanilla extract.  I hope to keep you, gentle reader, apprized of the progress over the coming weeks.  All you really need to start making your own extract is a glass jar, some vodka, a few beans, and patience.

Vanilla Extract
Yields 8 oz.

1 cup vodka
2-3 vanilla beans
small glass jar

  First, we're going to split the beans.  Take a sharp knife and run the tip through, starting near one end and all the way down through the other end.  For this application, we are not going to scrape out the seeds.  Just look at this beautiful bean footage.  Decadent vanilla 'caviar' for the win.  (Click this picture for a nice close-up.)
  Put the beans in a small, glass jar and fill with the vodka.  Avoid using a plastic container to avoid picking up off-flavors.  (Plastic lids are okay.)  Twist on the lid and store for at least 2 months in a cool, dark, dry place.

   Day 1 and counting!