Wednesday

Vanilla Vodka Recipe and Suggestions

This liquor is mighty tasty and easy to make. The ingredients are: real vanilla beans, sugar and vodka. Simple. The result is a strong liquor that goes down pretty smoothly.

Uses for Vanilla Vodka

I like to use vanilla vodka in holiday baking projects too (to enhance pumpkin, spice, apple and nutmeg flavors especially). The vanilla aroma really comes through and it adds richness to cupcakes, bread pudding, cakes, frosting and other pastries. I'll typically substitute a couple of tablespoons of vanilla vodka for the liquid requirement (milk or water) in a recipe and cut back a teaspoon of sugar or so -- but still add vanilla extract if the recipe calls for it.

If you've ever tasted vanilla vodka, you know it has a cold kick. It's tasty in hot beverages like coffee, though, and I've even mixed a little into whipped cream. It's very refreshing alone over ice.


Vanilla Vodka Makes a Nice Homemade Hostess Gift

With the inclusion of a couple of your favorite vanilla rich recipes on a printed card, this is a nice hostess gift. Leave a long vanilla bean in the bottle, tie it with a raffia bow, and you've made a gift with real culinary potential. I've prepped a bottle in the photo above. All it needs is the vodka mixture.

This recipe takes around a month to cure, but the wait is worth it. Once mixed, which should take around five minutes, a little patience does the rest. If you like to cook, bake or just experiment with beverages, make this one up and play with it a little. It's fun, and vanilla goes with lots of different ingredients. I plan on using part of my next batch in a cherry cupcake recipe -- just an example.

Vanilla Vodka Recipe
  • 30 ounces of vodka (decent quality but not the best on the shelf) I usually use half of a 1.75 liter bottle of vodka (59.2 fluid ounces) for easy measuring.
  • 1 cup white granulated sugar
  • 3 vanilla beans (sliced lengthwise and then cut into small sections for maximum exposure to the liquid).
Note: Reserve a bean for presentation if this will be a gift, which would make four beans total.)


Directions for Vanilla Vodka
  • Combine the ingredients in a glass jar with a tight fitting lid.
  • Shake thoroughly to dissolve the sugar.
  • Set aside for four weeks in your room temperature cupboard.
  • As the vanilla beans release their flavor and seeds, the mixture will turn brown and speckled.
  • Drizzle the completed fusion through a large coffee-filter lined funnel into a presentation bottle to which you've added a decorative vanilla bean. (The second photo here is a picture of a curing batch about a week from completion. You can see that it gets brown and rich looking.)
6 vanilla beans cost about $7.00 online
All done.

Special notes: Because I have leftover vodka, I usually make sweet lemon vodka at the same time. One is great with coffee (vanilla), while the other tastes very nice with strong, hot tea -- especially if I feel a cold coming on -- or it's cold outside -- or, well, you get the idea. I'll post the lemon vodka recipe shortly.

Oh, you can double the vanilla vodka recipe and make two batches at once. Just use all of one 1.75 liter bottle of vodka, 2 cups of sugar and 6 vanilla beans (8 if you want to pretty things up).

Last Photo credit:
Vanilla_6beans_Wiki.JPG Vanilla : 6 beans Photo : B.navez - 27 NOV 2005 (1,057 × 2,174 pixels, file size: 400 KB, MIME type: image/jpeg) http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Vanilla_6beans.JPG

Dried Herbs that Aren't Worth the Price (or Effort)

dried herbs
I love herbs, but only when they have great flavor. That leaves out a number of dried varieties. It's nice to think that drying herbs for use over the winter months (or buying them for a fast blast of flavor or aroma) is a foolproof way to develop culinary muscle. The fact is, though, that many herbs suffer when dried. They either lose much of their essential flavor or aroma. This isn't herb bashing; it is a sensible recommendation that you use your herb buying pennies to get the biggest bang for your flavor enhancing dollar.

Dried Herbs That Don't Pass Muster

The herbs listed below are pretty tasteless when dried:
Yes, you'll definitely find these dried herbs in your market, but their flavor is disappointing. The one exception may be parsley, but you'll discover that dried parsley will degrade very quickly in your cupboard. After a couple of months, it will be a colorful green with almost no flavor. If you like the idea of green specks in your chicken soup -- great. If you'd like some flavor with that garden fresh color, stick with fresh or frozen parsley.

If you're harvesting your own herbs, freeze cilantro, basil, parsley and chives in small bunches. You can also rough chop them into a water slurry and freeze batches in ice cube trays you can then transfer to large freezer bags. You can also try growing herbs indoors over the winter months. I've had some luck with over-wintering all the herbs above. If none of these suggestions appeal to you, this fab four is often offered fresh cut at major produce markets. The price may be more expensive than a bunch of green onions, but if you're making something special, it's worth it.

A Word About Dried Ginger

Ginger is another herb that loses most of its flavor once dried. If you want ginger for cooking but don't like the price in the market when you know you'll throw away more than you'll be using, try buying a nice piece of fresh root, slicing it in half-inch pieces and "pickling" it in Sherry or white wine. The ginger "in wine" will last for months in your fridge, and you can use it as you need it. More flavor, and money savings, too - what could be better. (See tips below)

Mint Takes Some Special Consideration Too

The mints can be problematical, too. Fresh mint has a great, bright flavor, but once it's dried, the flavor changes. It's there, but it loses the effervescent punch. For a relaxing or stomach settling tea, it's still effective. If you're considering adding dried mint to your vegetable or yogurt dish, you might want to stick to fresh. Some mints hold their flavor better than others, too. Spearmint and peppermint do well, but the subtle flavors in some specialty mints like orange mint can be lost in the drying process.

Drying Herbs Isn't Always a Compromise Move

Using dried herbs isn't all bad news. Bay leaf has better flavor when dried, and some seeds do, too. The flavors of oregano, thyme and sage are very vibrant dried. You might want to check even the old standbys before you use them, though. If you're used to seasoning lamb with fresh rosemary and try the dried variety, you may discover it has a more resinous aroma than you're used to. When using dried sage, there can sometimes be a musty aftertaste. The take away here is not to assume that a dried herb product will exactly reflect its fresh counterpart. Do some recon and adjust your recipes accordingly.

Ginger in Sherry: Slice ginger in half-inch pieces with the papery covering still in place. Place raw ginger in a glass jar with a plastic lid. (Old peanut butter jars are great for this.) Cover with Sherry or white wine (not dry). Refrigerate. You can use the ginger as needed in recipes. The wine will also take on a gingery flavor you can use in marinades.

Friday

Quick Tips for Harvesting Herbs

Harvesting Herbs
It's that time of year again. You know, the time when you start saving paper bags and rubber bands for your fall herb harvest. Chances are you've been pinching back the blooms on your oregano, drying a bit of catnip for the cat (and for tea), and using your tender basil for fresh, gourmet pesto.

That's not all you should be looking out for, though. The parsley should be trimmed back, and the lavender may bloom again if you give it some TLC. The calendula should be in fine bloom, too, and provide a very nice bit of color in fresh salads and dried for potpourri and tea. Fall is the absolute best time in the garden -- next to spring, that is. So don't give up on a nice fall herb harvest just because it's unseasonably warm, wet or buggy outdoors.

These Tips for Harvesting Herbs Will Get You Started



Check descriptions for individual herbs to determine whether you should be interested primarily in the leaves, flowers or seeds. With some favorites like lavender and rosemary, anything above the ground can be pretty useful. With other plants like basil, it's the leaves you're after.

Harvesting Herbs
Have a strategy. Harvesting, drying, freezing and cooking with herbs isn't rocket science, but if you have lots of varieties to deal with, a little preplanning can be pretty useful. Basil doesn't dry well, so you'll want to freeze it or actually prepare recipes ahead and freeze them. For versatile herbs like lavender, you may want to dry buds and use fresh stems to make wands or in other projects. For herbs like lemon balm and some of the other mints that can be used in cooking, potpourri and other projects, understanding how you'll want to use them later will help you to determine the best way to preserve and store them now.

It will give you an idea as to the quantities you'll want to deal with too. There's a big difference between drying some catnip for your favorite feline and wanting a big batch you can donate to the local pet shelter or use for holiday gift giving.

Get your tools together. If you have a warm, dry spot in which to dry herbs in large bunches, you can accomplish a lot of harvesting in one go. Another option is to place large paper bags on their sides (with the erstwhile bottoms cut out) and fill them with herbs for open-air drying. If you have a sunny deck and little or no herb drying area indoors, this is a great solution. Whatever your method, make sure you have your tools ready before you start hacking away at your plants. Consider setting aside:

  • A good pair of shears
  • Paper bags
  • Labels
  • Twist ties
  • Baskets
  • Rubber bands (These are great for attic drying of herb bunches. The bands snug up as the herbs dry so fewer stems end up on the floor.)

Have your dehydrator, oven drying racks or pans, or other drying paraphernalia ready to go, too. If you're doing this in a few batches, gauge your volume so you don't pick too much at one time. Once an herb has been cut, it's too late to put it back.

Harvesting Herbs
Harvesting Herbs -- Quick Tricks

  • Avoid using plastic bags for harvesting. Herbs will wilt more quickly, and if left in the sun, you may end up with steamed herbs unintentionally.
  • Harvest in the morning before the sun hits the herbs but after most of the dew has evaporated. That way you'll get herb leaves at their most fragrant and flavorful.
  • Choose the best stems, leaves and blooms you can find in the garden. Avoid harvesting any herbs that look as though they may be tainted in some way. Make a cursory check for insect activity, too. Look for small holes, irregular leaf margins, the presence of eggs on the undersides of leaves, and the presence of cocoons or webs.
  • If you have lots of varieties with similar leaf shapes, like multiple mint or scented geranium varieties, label them as you pick them. I use bulk-food twist ties from the market. It'll save confusion and disappointment later.
  • You can place harvested herbs in a paper bag to tote them around, but I prefer using a couple of wicker baskets. They're inexpensive, handy and lend a kind of nostalgic "lady of the manor" grace to the process that seems appropriate. They're also easy to rinse or shake out after you've finished with them.
  • Leave harvested herbs in a shady but warm spot outdoors for a half hour after harvesting. This is usually enough time to encourage lingering varments to depart.
  • Before you take your harvest indoors, inspect it for insect eggs and cocoons one more time. Destroy any tainted leaves or stems. You checked before, but it never hurts to look again before you bring big batches of greens indoors.

If you plan on making an herb wreath or swag this year, leave some herbs on the vine for this last project. It's one of my favorites, and I usually put it off until the first frost is imminent: How to Make an Herb Wreath