Wednesday, November 7, 2012

You Can Do That?!?: Vanilla Edition

Did you know that garage sales can seriously change your life?
What? That was random. But really, a garage sale changed my life.
It was eight years ago, an early summer Saturday morning. Garage salers were out in force, looking for deals on chipped tea cups, dusty coffee makers, and drooled on toys. I, myself, wasn't looking for anything in particular. I was just combing through strangers houses, enjoying their collections of presidential plates and mini McDonalds edition beanie babies. While looking through a particularly large collection of cookbooks, I found one called Breads From La Brea Bakery by Nancy Silverton. It had a lovely cover with all manner of nicely browned breads. 'What the heck', I thought, 'I like books, I like bread, and its only $.50'. A relentless bargainer, I talked the poor book's owner down to $.25 and left with my treasure. Excited as can be about my purchase, I brought the book home and promptly forgot about it.
A few months later, I was cleaning my room and found the book. It was dusty. The bread on the cover did not look appetizing dusty. I moved to put it in the 'throw away' pile. Suddenly a breeze from my upstairs window blew open the cover. The sun came through at the same time, illuminating the words and I began to read. (Okay not really, but this was one of those pivotal moments that changes the course of life and I thought it deserved a good story.) Anyway, before I threw it away, I wanted to read what I had spent my hard earned quarter on.
Before this book, I had thought of bread as the holy grail of baking. To get bread to rise and taste good was a huge accomplishment reserved for professional bakers and my grandma. I had also assumed that using yeast was the only way to make bread. Boy, was I in for a surprise.
Get this! You can make bread (excellent, better than you've ever tasted in your life bread) with just flour and water!
This idea appealed to me. This was how people from the beginning of time made bread. They pulled out their rock, smashed some wheat berries, and fermented it with water. How cool is that? I loved the idea of getting back to the basics.
So someday, I may write about my bread adventures. (I did end up successfully cultivating an active, delicious starter and making bread from flour and water. Still gives me excited jitters.) But for now, I just wanted to write about my introduction to 'getting back to the basics'.
Pretty much every ingredient I cook with these days I think, 'how could I make this myself?' or 'How would my great, great, great, great grandma have done this?' Those questions don't always get me anywhere (I don't have the ability to mine sodium bicarbonate from the earth... yet.) but in some cases, like making my own vanilla extract, it does.
But why, I sometimes ask myself. Why, in Gods green earth, would I want to make my own vanilla? Well, I could say that it saves me money (which it does) or that I can control the quality of ingredients (which I can), or that it tastes way better than store bought (which it does). No, the real reason is that I feel pretty darn awesome about myself. When everyone else in the world is suffering from a vanilla extract shortage, raiding grocery stores for it, and swarming the one vanilla extract delivery truck that comes every two months from somewhere in Mexico, I will already have a lifetime stash of vanilla in my cupboard.
Yes, I am that pathetic.
But, I am what I am. And so, when it all comes down, you'll know who to come to for all your vanilla needs.
If you want, you can always make your own too. It's ridiculously easy. All you need is vodka (or rum) and vanilla beans. Here's how.

When I first read about making your own vanilla, the recipe said to use 'bottom shelf vodka'. Being highly ignorant of all things alcoholic, I went to the liquor store and asked for 'Bottom Shelf Vodka', thinking I was asking for some brand of fancy vodka. When the clerk looked at me funny, it all clicked. Looking sheepishly down at my feet, I mumbled something about just needing their cheapest vodka. Guess what? She grabbed it from the bottom shelf. Lesson learned. On a side note, did you know that you can get vodka in a plastic bottle for $4?

I get my vanilla beans online, which is the only way I get my vanilla beans because it is so cheap. ( is cool).
So, to make vanilla, just take three beans, split them open, cut them in half and stuff them in a jar. Cover them with about 2/3 cup vodka. Make sure to push the beans down into the vodka. Put the lid on and put the jar somewhere out of the way. It takes eight weeks for the alcohol to extract the vanilla essence, so just wait. You can shake the jar up a little every week but make sure to get the beans down to the bottom of the jar again. In eight weeks, you have vanilla extract! 
So great, huh? The best part is that, as you use it, just replace the liquid with a bit more vodka. Then you don't have to wait another eight weeks. 
There you have it. Super easy. Super fun. And you may just feel like the coolest ever for making it yourself. 
Now, go find a garage sale. It may just change your life.

My Playlist:
All things Mumford & Sons  

Monday, November 5, 2012

Ten Digits

This is how dinner time goes at my house an embarrassingly high number of nights...

"So, what do you want for dinner?" - Me to my hubby (from now on referred to as Fireman because that is what he is) at 5:00 pm.

"It doesn't matter to me. What were you thinking?" - Fireman, while looking slightly alarmed that, while he was working hard outside all day, his wife hadn't planned anything yet.

"I wasn't thinking, that's why I asked." - Me, slightly irritated at Fireman that I was expected to figure out dinner (but mostly at myself for not doing it).

"Do we have anything?" - Fireman, looking even more green around the gills as the possibility of no dinner looms closer.

"No." - Me, thinking that we really do have food around but not anything easy.


Finally, I meet his eyes. In the seven years we've been married, there has been one gigantic vice that we have shared.


Not just any pizza. Coburg Pizza Company pizza. Greasy, cheesy, stuffed crust, pepperoni and sausage Coburg Pizza Company pizza. The kind that makes life blissful for a few delightful hours and then leaves you sweating pizza in bed at midnight cursing that 4th piece.


When our eyes meet, with just one special look, we both know exactly what is going to happen. 

"Do you want to call or should I?" - Fireman, with a tone of excitement and defeat all in one.

Now, like I mentioned before, an embarrassing number of nights I would say without hesitation, "You can call." Fireman would sigh, pull out his phone, and dial those ten digits that we know so well. The Coburg Pizza Company would answer the phone with "Hi, Chase Family" having known our number by heart for years. They can usually guess what we want to order and we know exactly how much it will cost us. "See you soon," we'd say. That is how things usually go for us.

But not this night. Maybe it was the sun that peaked from behind a particularly gloomy cloud at just the right moment that inspired me. Maybe it was the two innocent, pure, mostly un-pizza-tainted children looking up at me. Maybe it was the slight biting of my jeans waistband into my side. Whatever it was, this night I would not let the pizza beat us. 

"No." - Me, with a triumphant lift of my head and what I imagine to be a little bit of crazy in my eyes.

"Okay..." - Fireman, the slight green tinge making its way back to his face, as the possibility of no dinner overcomes him again.

"No. I mean, I will make dinner." Me, still triumphant, feeling as if I had just stuck my country's flag into a previously undiscovered island.

"Are you sure?" - Fireman, the green fading a bit.

"Yes. Yes, I'm sure." Me, turning with a flip of my hair and leaving Fireman behind, having unnecessarily (yet successfully) panicked and bewildered him in just a few minutes.

He'll be alright.

(In case you're wondering, here is what I made.)

Venison Stuffed Acorn Squash

2 small acorn squash
-- Cut squash in half. Put on a rimmed baking sheet with cut side down. Pour a cup or so of water around squash. Bake at 375 for 50 - 60 minutes.

1/2 c. uncooked bulgar (could use rice too)
1 c. Water
-- Boil water, add bulgar. Let simmer until water is absorbed into bulgar. Remove from heat.


1 T Olive Oil
1/4 medium onion (chopped)
1 clove garlic (minced)
-- Heat the oil on medium high heat. Add the onion and garlic, cook until translucent and soft.

1/2 lb ground venison (could use ground beef)
Salt and Pepper
-- Add the venison. Cook until no longer pink. Salt and pepper to taste.

The rest of a bottle of white wine (who knows how old) about 1/4 cup
-- Deglaze pan with wine and let it cook for a few minutes to evaporate.

2 T. Arrowroot powder
3/4 C. milk
A few sprigs of sage
Salt and Pepper
-- Sprinkle arrowroot over venison and onions. Cook for a minute. Pour in milk. Add in sage and enough coriander to taste (this is slightly tangy spice that goes well with venison, hard to overdo but probably about 1/2 teaspoon). Cook until mixture is thickened. Salt and Pepper to taste.

-- Add cooked bulgar into venison mixture. Cook for another couple minutes for flavors to combine.

Nutmeg (if you want)
-- After squash are done, stuff with venison mix and sprinkle with nutmeg. Bake for another 30 minutes.

You could add cheese if you wanted, but I think it would overwhelm the other flavors.

Voila! And, honestly, way better than pizza. Well, maybe not way better...


My playlist:
Honey Bee - Blake Shelton
Little Moments - Brad Paisley
Home - Dierks Bentley
Barefoot Blue Jean Night - Jake Owen