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Monday, November 29, 2010

Homemade Vanilla Extract

We have had some crazy weather here in Fairbanks this last week. A huge storm that came in last Monday gave most of us that worked at the University the whole week off. Today was the first time I had been into town in over a week. I must say that I was surprised to see that Christmas is in full swing at our local Fred Meyer store, music and all. Although I have never been one to shop on Black Friday, this year I couldn't help but notice it seems that everyone is encouraging us to spend more money this year. Seriously, even The Nature Conservancy is participating in "Green Monday". While I support the idea of being "Green", what does that really mean? So, I tried to think of some Green Holiday gifts to share with you here. The first thing that came to mind is something I use quite often in my kitchen. I call it the never ending bottle of vanilla. The one in the picture above is from my kitchen cupboard. Every time I finish off a vanilla bean I stick it in the jar, so this one is quite packed. For starting out or gift giving, two vanilla beans per 8 ounces will do the trick. If you don't use as many vanilla beans as I do during the year you can just split the bean in half and use the seeds and all, or you could scrape the seeds out and put them in a pretty jar with some sugar and make that a gift as well. This is a super easy holiday gift to make and it eliminates all the little jars of vanilla extract that you would normally use. Even the most adverse to cooking person in your life uses vanilla every once in a while and if not, well it is basically vanilla infused vodka. They can make their favorite vanilla flavored adult beverage.

To make Homemade Vanilla Extract you will need the following for each bottle. I recommend buying in bulk and making several at a time. One of my favorite places to shop for vanilla beans is Beanilla. If you buy in bulk you can get them for about 80 cents a piece, a real steal in Fairbanks where I once saw one Vanilla Bean for $17.95.

1 8 ounce bottle with secure sealing lid
2 Vanilla Beans
approximately 7 ounces of vodka (don't bother using the good stuff, it doesn't matter)

Cut the Vanilla Beans in half (I use kitchen scissors), either scrape out the seeds to use for another purpose or place the whole bean in the bottle. Fill bottle to top with vodka. Seal the bottle. Put in a cool, dark place for about 3-4 weeks. Use as you would vanilla extract. Keep a bottle of vodka handy. Each time you use some of the vanilla, top the bottle off with a little more vodka. If you notice the vanilla getting a little light in color after a year or so replenish the beans.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Veggie Wellingtons

It's that time of year again. The next six weeks are a blur of turkey, sugar cookies, pumpkin, candy canes, and egg nog. I have been wanting to make Veggie Wellingtons for year, I always thought if I had a vegetarian friend come over for the holidays that I would make the Mushroom Wellingtons from the Cafe Flora Cookbook. Unfortunately, they take three days to make and without the motivation I don't see them happening any time soon. But, when I saw these in the New York times a few weeks ago I decided to make them for dinner one night, a weeknight even! I'm not a big fan of cutting up uncooked squash, which is recommended in the original recipe, so I subbed sweet potatoes. They turned out beautifully. They would indeed make a great main dish for a vegetarian Thanksgiving. We will be having the usual Turkey with all the trimmings, but that won't stop me from making these Veggie Wellingtons again soon.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Madeira Bay Pork Chops

I am quickly becoming a big fan of Rozanne Gold's new cookbook, "Radically Simple". All of the recipes I have tried so far have indeed been simple, but also had really great flavor. I made these pork chops in less than 30 minutes. They felt like a special meal, something you might order at a fancy restaurant. They were so flavorful that David requested we have them for Christmas dinner this year and I have to say it is tempting. Really, Christmas dinner on the table in less than an hour with potatoes? It almost feels like cheating.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Bay Potatoes

Many years ago I went to see a movie called "Our Daily Bread" with a few friends.  I had seen movies, too many to count about the production of beef and chicken in the United States. So, the majority of the movie was not all that shocking to me except for the olives. Yes, the olives. I had become desensitized to the killing of animals, but the harvesting of olives with the mechanical vibrating machine still sticks with me to this day. After the movie we joked that we couldn't  go out for a martini because even our olives are tortured. The issue wasn't so much my concern for the  olive tree, but the fact that I didn't know  how olives were harvested. I consider myself to be a person who is well versed in the language of food. Most often I know what a food is, where it comes from, how it was harvested and what it looked like before it hit the grocery store shelves. So I was shocked when recently I realized that I had no idea where bay leaves came from. A common ingredient in my kitchen that I use at least once a week. If pressed, I would have guessed that they grow on trees, but couldn't have come up with much more than that. I never really thought about Bay Leaves until I went to visit Karen Morss in her home in California. I went primarily to meet Karen and see the Lemon trees that provide me with Meyer Lemons each winter.While I was there Karen showed me the Bay tree growing out by her driveway. It wasn't until I smelled a fresh Bay leaf that I finally understood them. I have always honestly wondered about the purpose of Bay leaves in cooking, they didn't really seem to smell or taste like much. After smelling the fresh ones I finally get it. The small branch Karen cut from her tree netted about 60 or so leaves. most recipes only call for one or two at a time. I wanted to use them while they were still fresh, so I was thrilled to find this recipe for Bay potatoes that calls for 12 Bay leaves. The whole house smelled wonderful after baking these potatoes. I highly recommend using fresh Bay leaves if you can find them.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Apple Cider Doughnuts

It has been many years since I lived near Grand Rapids, Michigan. It was only a short time that I was there, but each fall I still think about the apple orchards. One of my favorite's was a place close by our house called Robinette's Apple Haus. We used to ride our mountain bikes on their trails. All I could think about the entire ride was getting back for warm Apple Cider and Donuts. When I received the new book Doughnuts from Lara Ferroni about a month ago, the first thing I looked for was an apple cider donut. Sure enough, there was one. The original recipe states that these won't turn out as golden brown if you bake them instead of frying. I could barely tell the difference between this and a fried donut. They turned out nice and crisp on the outside and light on the inside. I also loved the addition of graham flour, gave the donuts a great texture and lots of added flavor. If you can't find graham flour, you can just replace it with all purpose.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Apple Parsnip Soup

Keeping a blog makes me realize how quickly things change around here. I can barely keep up. We do have snow on the ground now (not bare like these photos), but still just barely enough for skiing. Here's to hoping the temperatures stay warm enough for snow and maybe all we will need is a warm bowl of soup to keep us warm for the next six (or eight) months of winter.
I am thankful for a mild November. Dermot should have asked us if we were planning a new wood stove before he predicted the severe winter this year. It's like you can pretty much guarantee it will rain if you forget your rain jacket and a grizzly bear will walk right across your path if you forget your camera. So Fairbanksans, you can thank us for buying a new wood stove and filling up our wood shed. A very mild November indeed.
If you need a little something to keep you warm, but aren't quite ready to start up the wood stove, this soup might just do the trick. I love the flavor the parsnips added to this soup. A great weekend lunch.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Fresh Tomato Salad

This post is all wrong and I just want you to know that I am aware of this fact. I'm writing to you about tomatoes in November from Fairbanks, Alaska. This salad screams fresh tomato and herbs from the garden. Ever since I returned from San Francisco I can't stop thinking about the heirloom tomato salad I had at Fish and Farm. It doesn't help that I drove all the way out to Pt. Reyes station just so I could bring some of this Blue Cheese home with me. Even though I have tossed the cheese on salads of romaine and smeared it across sliced pears, I still needed this salad.
I'm not a huge fan of recipes with step-by-step photos. I am one to say, "Just give me the recipe" and scroll to the bottom of the page. This one is so amazingly simple I couldn't resist...

Monday, November 8, 2010

San Francisco Highlights

So many people along the way have asked about the research I did going into my trip to San Francisco. How did I decide where to eat, where to go, and what to do? Although I would like to think of myself as more spontaneous than I actually am, I did put a lot of time into researching this trip. The majority of the preliminary research came from blogs or reviews, but even more came from talking with people when I arrived in San Francisco. I went to places where I would meet like minded people who would stear me in the right direction.
Although this trip was centered on meeting Ruth Reichl, that opportunity was only part of the week.
My travel style is fairly laid back. I like to eat good food, but honestly I am on a limited budget. I am willing to grab a simple piece of fruit or a bit of cheese for lunch in order to save up both my appetitite and finances for a more spectacular dinner. Some days it is the lunch that becomes the focus and if eaten late enough I skip dinner altogether. One thing that became clear two days into the trip is that my Fairbanks palate and stomach was not going to be able to take all of the rich city food. I had a list of over 20 options for meals and snacks in 7 days. I had hoped to visit the majority of them. I barely put a dent in my original list, not to mention all the items that I added to the list as I met people along the way.  I went all out on Sunday and Monday, by the time Tuesday rolled around the only meal I ate was a salad late in the afternoon. 

So if you are headed to San Francisco sometime soon, here are my humble food related recommendations with a few photos from my trip as well:

Fish and Farm- The food and the service were solid. I enjoy eating at a place that feels like you are eating out without being too stuffy to the point of feeling uncomfortable. Fish and Farm had a casual atmosphere, yet the food was anything but casual. The selling point for me was actually the fact that they had fried chicken on their menu. It has been so long since I have had really good fried chicken. It goes without saying that it was perfectly fried and juicy.  My favorite part of the meal was the heirloom tomato salad. A simple salad topped with bacon and the best blue cheese I have ever tasted. It was only a week ago that I mentioned that I just don't like blue cheese anymore, and then I find this one from the Pt. Reyes Creamery. I actually drove all the way out to Pt. Reyes Station just to pick some up and bring back to Alaska. The little cornbreads made in Madeleine pans were a nice touch as well. Oh, and it didn’t hurt that half way into the meal a movie star was seated an elbows length away.

Tartine- Well, what can I say about Tartine that hasn’t already been said? I think the thing that shocked me the most is that I almost missed the place due to how non-descript the building was. 

Lemon Ladies- If you have been following this blog, you know I love Meyer Lemons. I have been ordering lemons from Karen Morss for years. I was finally able to meet her and the lovely lemon ladies (the trees). This one you don’t have to go to San Francisco to do, Karen ships all over the United States, even Fairbanks!

Omnivore Books- I could have spent an entire day in this place. They had so many great imports, and older books as well. I’m still in awe of how they fit so many great cookbooks in such a small space. The manager was also wonderfully helpful. Although she admitted she didn’t eat out much, her restaurant recommendations were spot on.

Bi-Rite Creamery and Market- These two places were the highlight of my trip. Salted Caramel Ice Cream at the creamery was addictive. I won’t admit how many times I stopped in that week, but let’s just say they recognized me and knew what I wanted the last time I stopped in. The Market half a block down is wonderful for stocking up on goods to take home. They also carry St. Benoit yogurt, which I ate my share of over the week.

Pizzeria Delfina- Just down the road from Bi-Rite. I have eaten a lot of pizza in my life, this would be in the top three of all time best. Their homemade sausage and perfectly tender crust is my new bar in home pizza making. The wine list is pretty spectacular for a pizza joint. The fact that they are a 30 second walk to Bi-Rite Creamery really sweetens the deal.

Burma Superstar- Fermented tea leaves and fried garlic never tasted so good. I will crave their Tea leaf salad for the rest of my life. It is places like this that making eating out a pleasure. Never could I re-create this salad in my own home. That really makes the place feel special. 

Sebo- The manager at Omnivore books told me this sushi would change my life. I didn’t know that meant I would be broke afterward. The sushi here is very expensive, but dare I say worth it? I say go, sit at the sushi bar, eat as many pieces of Nigiri as you can afford. That is what I did.  

Boulette’s Larder- This is the spot in the Ferry Building where I had lunch with Ruth Reichl. We both had the Albondigas. The best meatballs I have ever eaten in my life, so tender you could have eaten them with a spoon. I was such a nervous wreck during our lunch that I wasn’t able to eat very much, so I took them in a doggie bag and proceeded to scarf them down when I got a few blocks away from the ferry building. Even cold, they were still the best meatballs I have ever eaten. 

Dynamo Donuts- This was one of the places that I knew I had to go to. I have had this planned out for months. For some reason I didn’t get there until the second to last day of my trip. This is probably a good thing as all the flavors were just amazing. I ended up ordering four donuts and eating ¼ of each of them. Maple Glazed Bacon Apple, Meyer Lemon Huckleberry, Coconut, and Caramel de Sel were my choices. I really wanted to try Lemon Pistachio, but five donuts just for me seemed a little excessive. The person at the counter assured me that people order one of each of the dozen flavors all the time. Each of the donuts was perfectly crafted. I loved that the flavors were subtle which made mixing and matching so much easier. My hands down favorite was the Meyer Lemon Huckleberry. 

123 Bolinas- I was so tired after my crazy week and a long drive this day. 123 Bolinas in Fairfax was just what I needed. This wine bar made me wish we had just one place like this in Fairbanks. It is the perfect place to meet a new friend for a long chat. That is just what Shae and I did. I found Shae when she wrote about High Bush Cranberries and Fairbanks on her blog. We knew we would have a lot and common and decided to meet in Fairfax. We talked non-stop for two hours and on the drive back to San Francisco I kept thinking about all the things I still wanted to ask her about. Good thing she will be back in Fairbanks next summer. I'm totally jealous that she gets this place as her local watering hole.

Commis- This was the cherry on top of an amazing week. This was also my first experience with a Michelin starred restaurant. Everything was so well choreographed that I felt like I was part of a dance performance rather than a meal. The whole evening just flew by. It felt like I had only been there for 20 minutes, but almost as though I had been hypnotized it had been over two hours. As I walked out the door I felt like I had just spent the day at the spa. Never have I had this type of experience with a meal. The food and wine were perfectly paired. The absolute lack of d├ęcor made the food and wine the central focus of the experience. The staff was welcoming and attentive even though I got lost on my way and showed up ½ hour late. If I ever get back to San Francisco, this place will be at the top of my list for places to return.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Whole Wheat Carrot Gnocchi

Wow, was it really a week ago today that I sat down for lunch with Ruth Reichl in San Francisco? A week ago that I sampled ice cream flavors such as Secret Breakfast and Elvis. One week ago that I had the best sushi of my life? Seven days ago that I went to a presentation at the Herbst Theater for a conversation with Ruth Riechl and Mark Bittman. Last week was such a whirlwind and for half of it I feel like I had an out of body experience. Was that really my life? Whoever that was, she had a really good time. She gained 50 pounds to prove it (don't worry it was in my checked baggage). I'm working on a post about my trip and some of my favorite spots in San Francisco.
The presentation at the Herbst Theater was a little odd. First of all the Giants were playing (and winning) that night, so the crowd would erupt into random cheers for no apparent reason. They were also having a lot of trouble with their sound equipment. Luckily, I had already purchased Mark Bittman's new cookbook and made these gnocchi before I left. I'm not sure the presentation would have sold me on the book. I can tell you these gnocchi with our local Fairbanks carrots were superb, I highly recommend them. They are very light, so they are best served as an appetizer or a side dish.

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