When I headed to Portland late last summer, I wasn’t thinking about eating my way through the city. I was on my way to celebrate the 50th wedding anniversary of my college housemate, JulieAnn and her husband, Marlo. While I wasn’t envisioning dining out, I was thinking food. One of my assignments for the party was to bake cookies. Specifically, gluten-free cookies. I’ve been baking gluten-free for years as my daughter is celiac, my grandsons are gluten-sensitive, and I’m allergic to wheat. JulieAnn also has celiac. I arrived with a few tools of the trade and ready to make five different cookie recipes for the party.
Love salads as an entree but when the weather turns cold, not so much? That’s my problem. Easy to make, they can be as simple or complex as your mood or time allows, they’re healthy and, if you’re clever, you can get in your days’ worth of greens at one sitting. The problem? Facing a crisp, cold green salad on a cold, wet or snowy day! So, what’s the alternative?
Understanding vanilla product labels can certainly get complicated as new products flood the market and old products get rebranded. There are actually five different types of liquid vanilla in the marketplace right now and we’re not talking five different species here. We’re talking labels and what’s inside the bottles.
As I get asked about the difference between pure, flavor, natural, and imitation vanilla frequently, I decided to write an article specifically addressing what’s in the bottle and why it’s labeled the way it is.
For those looking for a cheap substitute to the real thing because it’s so expensive right now, this is also good to know.
We’ll start with pure vanilla extract.
What Makes Pure Vanilla Extract Pure?
There is a Standard of Identity for vanilla extract in the United States. To be labeled Pure Vanilla Extract, a gallon measure must contain 13.35% vanilla bean extractives (10-ounces of moisture-free solids), 35% alcohol, and the balance in distilled water.
What is not listed in the Standard of Identity is sugar, corn syrup, caramel color or any other additives pure vanilla may contain.
Some companies include one or more of these ingredients on their labels, but most do not – even though their pure vanilla contains it. The same is true with alcohol. Grain alcohol is the most commonly used alcohol in vanilla, but sugarcane alcohol is also used. Sugar or corn syrup are often used to mask the harsh notes of alcohol or to make the extract smell and taste better if the quality of the beans used were not good quality.
Enough customers have asked us this question that I realized that although I’ve mentioned this information in passing in blogs, we needed a blog that addresses this important question. My hope is that this will assist all of you who aren’t quite sure about the best way to preserve your products.
What is bad about saffron?
Intrinsically nothing. However, as saffron has reigned as queen of the expensive flavors and spices since Medieval times, unscrupulous dealers throughout the centuries have used safflower and other imposters as the real deal. Unfortunately, despite laws to keep our food safe, sleight-of-hand is even happening right here in the US.
Here’s what’s going on:
All saffron sold commercially is now grown in Iran and Afghanistan. Whoa! What about Spain? Times have changed in sleepy La Mancha, where no one tilts with windmills and the region no longer closes down in October for the crocus harvest. Families no longer sit around long tables tweezers-in-hand, plucking the three stigmas from each flower and dropping the purple petals in baskets. Trays of saffron threads no longer rest about the family stove, drying just enough to be packaged then shipped to those who value this coveted flavor in their foods.
Sadly, those days are gone, but Spain still plays a pivotal role in the dispersal of saffron. Spain is where saffron is doctored and passed off as a pure, natural flavor.
For many years saffron has been an important Persian export, perhaps not as valuable as petroleum, but for the culinary world, a necessary delicacy. Sanctions and a changing climate have been very difficult for saffron for quite some time and prices have continued to edge upwards. However, sanctions have been lifted and Iran is again offering premium quality saffron.
Saffron prices have skyrocketed, selling for $1600 a pound or more. Of course, most of us buy a few grams or half an ounce at a time, enough for several meals. At about $4.00 a gram, saffron is actually an affordable luxury.
Because Spain has been known for centuries as the only place to buy saffron, it is shipped from Iran to Spain for repackaging, then exported as Spanish saffron.
While this is not true of all saffron emerging from Spain, a significant portion is processed to remove the volatile oils and colorants, then sold to Japan as a coveted dye. The threads are left with little flavor and their color is largely gone. Red dyes banned in much of Europe and in the United States are applied to the threads, then dried, packaged in decorative Spanish tins, and sent to big box stores, supermarkets and other destinations, including specialty stores, where they are sold. There is no way to check the saffron in the tins until after it is purchased. The price may be significantly lower, but what you’re purchasing is not what you had in mind.
US customs is aware of what is going on, but allows it through unchallenged. As it can cost up to $40,000 for a full lab report, it’s easier to look the other way rather than inspect each shipment that arrives in our ports.
If you have bought saffron recently, check it carefully. Smell the threads. The odor should be clean and pungent. Tainted saffron that I smelled had only a faint saffron aroma. The threads themselves were dull and mottled, not vibrant with a red and yellow hue.
If you love saffron, don’t take the risk of being duped. Purchase quality saffron, then store it in a cool, dark cupboard, where it will last for years.
Five friends and I had 36 glorious hours in San Diego, including New Year’s Eve. We also spent 18 hours on the road coming and going, a small price to pay for a holiday in one of California’s big cities.
If you’re interested in and enjoy Mexican cuisine, you’ll want to remember this name – Diana Kennedy, is arguably the world’s authority on Mexico’s incredibly diverse and unique foods, flavors, dishes and their preparation. She has written nine books on the subject. Her first book, The Cuisines of Mexico, came out in 1972, and is credited with opening American eyes to the extraordinary regional flavors of Mexico.
The year I turned 15 I spent the summer with my cousins in Connecticut. I had been cooking since I was very young and especially loved to bake. One afternoon when my cousin and I were hanging out with a friend down the road, the friend’s dad asked if I would teach his daughter to cook. Being 15, cream puffs seemed like a great idea as we could eat the lesson. Much more interesting than something practical like French toast, hamburgers or soup. In the middle of making the cream puffs there was a thunderstorm. As California doesn’t get rain in the summer and we rarely have thunderstorms, I was quite surprised when we ended up with a soupy mess. While I don’t know that the thunderstorm and the humidity caused the fail, they were the likely suspects. This is the first — and only — time I ever had trouble with cream puffs. Until this week.
A Quick history of pie
According to historical accounts, pie has been around since the Egyptians, and they probably learned about pies from the Greeks. The crusts weren’t always eaten, however, but acted as a way to encase meats. The first English pies were made from crows and meat fillings are still a popular Pub entree. Crow pie? Not so much.
Given all the bad press on the evils of sugar, we know we need to be judicious about our intake, but it’s oh-so-difficult! We’re hard-wired to love it; sweet is the first taste sensation a newborn baby experiences, and for many of us, sweets are downright addictive. Given that we’re constantly reminded to limit our sugar consumption to prevent obesity, metabolic syndrome, diabetes and tooth decay, you can imagine my surprise when my favorite sugar — maple syrup — was recently declared a super food!
Visiting the San Francisco Specialty Food Show is always a January highlight for West Coast food professionals. It’s like a giant no-host cocktail party but with samples of 80,000 foods and beverages but no cocktails. Although I don’t remember when I first attended a show, it was sometime in the late 1980s. At that time, the event was housed in the main hall at Moscone Center, and it was possible to walk the entire show, visit with vendors and eat yourself silly in one day. Walking even one full row meant required a certain amount of discipline, however. Chocolates, olive oil, lots of cheeses, more chocolates, olives, sausages, hard candies, scones and soda might all be in the same row. It took me several shows to remember that I didn’t have to taste everything, no matter how enticing, especially in random order. Fortunately, there were pitchers filled with water strategically placed to clear jaded palates.
Adding a little creme fraiche when you are whipping cream will help to stabilize it. No deflating, leaking or other problems, and no need to add cornstarch or gelatin to keep the whipped cream looking good on top of the pie or cake. Creme Fraiche is a lightly cultured cream so it has a pleasant tartness to it — not too pronounced but just enough to give the whipped cream a slight edge.
Many years ago I swore that I would never live where I couldn’t easily get artichokes, asparagus, and avocados. Times have changed and we can now get just about anything anywhere, but living on California’s Central Coast, I live at ground zero for all three of these favorites of mine.
Just about everyone knows how to use avocados but artichokes and asparagus some have special secrets worth sharing. And while I could easily dedicate an entire blog to each of these two vegetables, they have certain shared characteristics and sauces worthy of each so, for the time being at least, I’m combining them into one meaty blog with links to recipes.
Asparagus is a fern. If you look carefully at the tips of asparagus, you’ll see that it has little segments that turn into a fern that looks like the asparagus ferns we grow in pots (and are likely closely related to the ones we eat). It can be grown from seed, but most asparagus that is grown commercially is grown from crowns that take around a year before they produce. Growing by seed takes longer.
This is one of the most versatile sauces you’ll want in your bag of culinary tricks. You can switch out toasted pecans, walnuts or macadamia nuts for the almonds, use sour cream instead of Greek yogurt, add pepper flakes or Siracha sauce…the list goes on. Even the basic ingredient measurements are flexible.
If you are unfamiliar with tagines but enjoy trying new recipes are up for exotic flavors, you are in for a treat. The richness and depth of flavor as well as the interesting pairing of ingredients are truly a sensory delight.
Tagines (also spelled tajines) are North Africa’s version of stew, the mainstay and comfort food of people everywhere. The Berbers of North Africa gave the world tagines as well as cous cous; in Morocco, the tagine is both daily food and edible art.
In 2011 I went to Italy with several friends, and we spent a week in Cinque Terra, Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast. As a dedicated lemon user, I was charmed by the Italian’s devotion to their precious harvest. In Monterosso there was a weekend fair dedicated to lemons. When I walked through the town very early in the morning, there were baskets and boxes of lemons waiting for someone to bring them down the hill. We sampled several favorite family lemon tarts and cakes and drank Limoncello as the fair got underway.
While waiting for the turkey to roast, and the pies to bake, chances are you haven’t eaten all day. Time for Appetizers! Here are three to whet your palate and get you ready for the Thanksgiving feast to come. Enjoy!
Whether you are a seasoned home baker, a beginner or a professional, when a new book by Rose Levy Beranbaum comes out, pay attention! Rose is the undisputed Diva of Desserts, with ten exceptional books on baking, and a very popular blog, Real Baking with Rose.
Her newest book, The Baking Bible, shines a welcoming beam of light on the best in the world of baking: Bread, cakes, pies, tarts, pastries, and confections.
Rose is known throughout the culinary industry for her meticulous attention to detail, her extensive research and testing of ingredients, and her precise instructions for each recipe she creates. She has raised the bar by encouraging home bakers to measure ingredients carefully by weighing them. She lists both the US standard system of ounces and pounds, and the International metric system, the preferred standard of most professional bakers, in each of her recipes, and she tests her recipes extensively so you don’t have to. Followed properly, her recipes are a no-fail proposition. This alone is reason for a standing ovation!
My friend Janet Sawyer is an exceptional woman who magically makes a 24-hour day stretch exponentially. She claims she has always been project-oriented, but my assessment is that she’s in love with the world and embraces ideas and opportunities that speak to her as remarkable and warrant further consideration. Once she commits to something new, she’s in 110%!! Having just spent three weeks with Janet in England, I have experienced firsthand her joie de vivre and how nothing pleases her more than an exciting challenge.
Away from the Kitchen
Untold Stories, Private Menus, and Insider Tips —
Favorite Regional Chefs Reveal, Confess and Speak Out
By Dawn Blume Hawkes; She Writes Press; 2014