Tuesday, August 5, 2008


Vanilla: iPOD love:

Vanilla is a member of the orchid family and originated in Mexico. Only one insect is known to pollinate the flower and must coordinate with the orchid's flowering cycle. Now, vanilla is hand pollinated, part of the reason why pure vanilla and vanilla pods are so expensive.

It's only cultivated in a few places around the world, including Hawaii, which is the only place in the U.S. to produce vanilla. Like salt, Hawaii also has a special kind of vanilla. According to Hawaiian Vanilla Company, Hawaiian vanilla is the second most expensive spice in the world (saffron, the stigma of a certain species of crocus, is the most expensive).

Types of vanilla:

French vanilla: French vanilla is not actually vanilla from France. It refers to a flavor combination for a custard or cream (made in a French cream/custard style) with vanilla added. It's creamy and good, but it's not exactly vanilla.

Tahitian vanilla: An extremely aromatic and full-bodied vanilla flavor. It is rich and very intensely vanilla flavored. From Polynesia.

Bourbon/Madagascar vanilla: Aromatic, produced and labeled as their location. From Madagascar and other Indian Ocean islands.

West Indian vanilla: Mass produced for commercial usage. If you're buying vanilla at a store without looking at names, this is probably what you're buying. It is good, but if you're looking for more flavor, head for something different.

Vanilla Lingo and What to Purchase:

You can buy vanilla in bean, extract, or powder (I haven't ever seen this form, but it exists) form.

Vanilla refers to both the flavoring that is derived from vanilla beans, either by extraction into an alcohol or from a straight vanilla bean steeped in another liquid. Commercially, you can buy vanilla extract, which is sold in a 35% alcohol solution or more. (Don't drink it, it's rather disgusting. The flavor of alcohol disappears as soon as it is mixed into another substance.) If you have the chance to get ahold of a vanilla bean (they're expensive, but totally worth it), do it. Information about usage of vanilla beans will continue later.

Vanillin is a chemical compound that is a component of pure vanilla, but it is also a compound that can be created by steeping wood in alcohol or made chemically in a lab. Because it's not pure vanilla, it's cheap. And it doesn't taste like vanilla. Avoid this like the plague. This is not food.

Vanilla concepts and pairings:

Vanilla is a commonly recognizable scent and is used in a variety of perfumes and aroma therapy, as well as being a vital ingredient in baking. It is so distinct that we associate it with many sweet things without even thinking about it as an ingredient. If we think sweet, we think vanilla.

Vanilla is really good. REALLY REALLY GOOD. Hence, you can add it to anything. It really enhances sweet-inclined dairy products very much, including whipped cream, ice cream, cheesecakes, yogurt, sour cream.

Due to its light flavor, it works well with delicate desserts like flans, custards, and soufflees. It also enhances other sweet things, so add it to any dessert, baked good, fruit (fresh or raw), anything chocolatey.

Vanilla and savory dishes also work together well. I like vanilla with more naturally sweet things, like carrots, winter squash/pumpkins, sweet potatoes, etc,; however, it complements a mild curry powder well, as well as shrimp and other seafoods.

To assure the most flavor, add vanilla near the end of preparation (it allows the alcohol to evaportate if using extract, and doesn't let the flavor to get lost).

Also, anytime it mentions the amount of vanilla in a recipe, it's just a recommendation, not a maximum. Vanilla is delicious. Use it liberally.

Vanilla Beans:

Remember how I mentioned that vanilla beans are amazing and if you have one... well... There are a few things you can do. Splitting the bean down the center and scraping out the seeds with the dull side of the knife gets those beautiful little black specks that people associate with vanilla. You can add these to anything (I highly suggest scalding [warming in heated but not boiling] with any sort of milk or cream product) and it will be tasty.

But you spent so much on that bean! And IT SMELLS SO GOOD. Now that you have taken out the seeds, you can do a few other things with the pod... You can make vanilla sugar (or vanilla salt, if you wish. Sweet-salty is always good) by placing the pod in granulated sugar within a sealed container for at least two weeks.

You can also make homemade vanilla extract by placing the bean in alcohol (usually vodka, though brandy, rum, or bourbon [I'm southern, sorry] works just as well.) From what I've seen online, 3 vanilla bean pods to one cup of alcohol seems to be a good proportion. The longer it sits, the more flavor it gets. Store out of light.

Friday, August 1, 2008


Salt: Without it, you wouldn't taste a damned thing.

Salt is amazing. I don't know if you guys realize how vital salt is to our existence. I don't need to go into much depth, but everything that we know in the history of the world was affected mostly in part of salt processing, distribution, and use. Read Salt: A World History. It's totally worth your time.

Other than being an ingredient in almost every food imaginable, salt is a basic taste for our taste buds, and is something we commonly crave. Convienently, many popular snacks are high in sodium and hit that salt craving nicely when necessary.

Salt is very underused in our society's home cooking, and then most of our food is bland. Does your food taste like nothing even though there are great things in it? Add salt! It will bring out many of the flavors with a single pinch. Add it until you can taste the flavors of the dish, not the salt.

Kinds of Salt:

Basic salt (the one that you find in salt shakers everywhere) is usually iodized salt. It's processed with iodine, and they look like tiny cubes. It's salty. Not much here. I would use it to salt water for boiling

Kosher salt is coarse. It's flavorful and dissolves well in dishes that are being cooked. This is a readily available salt and I would recommend it, since it's easy to find and tastes pretty good. I like it for anything involving flavoring foods, especially soups, stews, and liquid heavy stirfries. It's also great for brines and for picking.

Sea Salt is usually coarse and chunky and a bit aromatic. It's large, and usually needs to be ground or crushed before it is added to a dish, unless you are dissolving it in warm liquid. Sea salt is also delicious. It can be used to help keep ice frozen for icecream making, or ground into any dish of your choice, though I would lean towards seasoning warm dishes unless you choose to grind it. I like sea salt best, because it has dissolved minerals in it, and is less processed than other kinds of salt.

There are many kinds of specialty salts, such as grey salt (from France), red salt (from Hawaii), fleur de sel (very fine sea salt), green salt (with algae); color and taste are all based on the minerals in them. There are also many kinds of seasoned salts (smoked, herb, bacon, etc.) These tend to be used for specific flavorings, or as a finishing touch to a dish. If you ever get the opportunity to eat them, do it. They're fucking fantastic.

Salt concepts:

* First of all, everything, from sweet to spicy to sour will benefit from the addition of salt. It enhances the natural flavor of everything.

* Salt veggies (fresh, raw, steamed, whatever), salt chocolate (sauce, cake, cheesecake, cupcake), salt fruit (in the south, people eat melon with salt and pepper. It's really good), salt meat. Salt anything.

* Salt does cause the rupture of cell walls, though, so keep it in mind when cooking. Salt will make anything juice, so if you want a dry vegetable, remember to rinse and dry after salting if you plan to cook it some other way. Because of this, salt can remove bitterness from eggplant, cucumbers, and many other vegetables.

* Salt can be used to raise the boiling point and lower the freezing point of water. Use it when making homemade ice cream (rock salt keeps the ice colder) or when boiling water. If food is cooked in a liquid, the food will take on the flavors in the water. Use this to your advantage (more detail later. This is one of my other food goals). Foods that are cooked in water, including pasta and veggies and potatoes, especially, will absorb salt as they boil in the water. It is very difficult to properly salt things after they are cooked.

* Salt is used as a preservative. Use it on raw veggies with a touch of vinegar and/or sugar to make quick pickles (I've done this with cucumbers, beets, daikon, radishes, carrots, or pretty much any raw hard vegetable; usually over a few days).

* You can also use salt to brine (brine: salt + water, and any kind of spices; since salt causes the rupture of cells, all the good flavors can dash inside) any sort of animal protein. Wash it off before cooking it as you would regularly seasoned meat. It is not recommended to salt legumes until they are fully cooked, however.

* Salt is also one of the simplest seasonings to use, since it's an enhancer. To make wonderfully flavorful roasted veggies, toss vegetables of your choice in salt, pepper, and olive oil, and bake until soft.

* To make tasty seasoning salt (also known as finishing salt; which are used in food at the end, usually sprinkled on top, as a touch of extra flavor. Adding salt to other taste dishes [sweet, sour, spicy] increases the levels of enjoyment), grind dried herbs such as rosemary, sage, or garlic (or any kind. They're all tasty.) with coarse kosher salt or sea salt. You can use this instead of any salt in savory dishes, or as a finishing touch to anything.

Oh noes! I put too much salt in a dish! What do I do?

Well... Martha Stewart swears that if you put in one peeled potato into the dish and continue cooking it, the potato will absorb the excess salt and you will have a desalinated dish. I've never actually had to do this, though based on the above theory, it should work. I TASTE TASTE TASTE when I cook, and add things gradually and to taste, rather than following a certain amount in a recipe (seasoning amounts are just guidelines, anyways), so I have never run into this problem. I also tend to salt near the end of cooking, since cooking things for a long time concentrates the flavors, and concentrated salt is just saltier.

Wow. There is a lot about salt. Hope some fragments of this were helpful.


I have had a request to start writing about cooking, spices, and spicing. It'll be a learning guide, with some background and research (for my benefit) and some cooking recommendations.

I'll start with nutmeg.

Nutmeg: This is LOVE.

Firstly, nutmeg is probably my favorite spice. According to Wikipedia, nutmeg is an evergreen seed from tropical Asia. Mace, which is another spice derived from the same plant, is the covering of the seed.

Where do you get it? What should I look for?

Like most spices, you can buy it already ground. Ground spices are delicious and cheap, require less preparation tools, etc. They don't last forever, though, but then again, nutmeg shouldn't either. It's great. At school, I have a container of ground nutmeg, which you can buy practically anywhere, though mine is from this spice shop at the West Side Market in Cleveland. At home, we have whole nutmeg seeds and a cool little grater with a holder in the top to hold the seed when it's not in use.

Where have I had it before?

Nutmeg is a common addition to pumpkin pie seasoning (which also includes cinnamon and allspice), as well as to gingerbread cookies, and is a natural match with anything involving cinnamon (anywhere where there is cinnamon, you can add nutmeg... about twice as much cinnamon to nutmeg is a good proportion).

Nutmeg, much like cinnamon, can be added to sweet as well as savory (a definition of savory is kind of ambiguous... I think it was decided that it was similar to umami, the 5th taste. It's a flavor combination that is not sweet but is full-bodied and with much flavor, usually coming from reduction, caramelization or proper spicing.) Savory foods are my favorite, but a complexity of flavor can be reached by having a variety of tastes within a food creation (combining any or all tastes: sweet, sour, salty, spicy, bitter, and savory... think about a chili sweet-and-sour chicken/tofu... it tickles the tastebuds in a variety of places). Combining tastes is one of my food goals anytime I cook.

My favorite nutmeg additions (These aren't really recipes, but if you want recipes for these concepts, I can pass them along.)

Anything involving chocolate (hot chocolate, chocolate chip cookies, chocolate cake, truffles) can easily have more depth of flavor if you add a pinch of nutmeg and/or cinnamon. Also, cayenne, but that's another thing later...

Things that are sweet... anything fruity (pies), sugary (icing), syrupy (with maple syrup, on pancakes), whipped-creamy (spiced whipped cream is fucking fantastic on chocolate, strawberry, or coffee desserts), etc. It just tastes good.

Any baked goods or breakfast things: cakes, pies, cheesecake (crust for both the previous things), pancakes, waffles, french toast.

In savory dishes, I like nutmeg (and cinnamon) in things that are mildly to very spicy. It adds a hint of sweet to something spicy, layering the flavors. Many Greek dishes also call for nutmeg, including moussaka (a rich eggplant cassarole) and pastisito (a mulit-step pasta dish that has a thick meat sauce tossed with pasta and then covered with a nutmeg scented white sauce and baked). Nutmeg also works very well with ground meat (beef, turkey, pork, what have you.)

Anytime I make a white sauce, alfredo sauce, cheese sauce or anything else white/creamy/soupy (including cream of "insert veggie here" soup). It's good with asparagus and mushrooms, especially.