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I'm amazed at how superior your vanilla is!
- Des, The Grommet

Mint Julep

 

Mint Julep

The Mint Julep has long been associated with the south, but is thought to have gotten it’s roots centuries ago in the Arab world, as the Julab. Now it’s most famously associated with the Kentucky Derby. Regardless of where you reside, you can enjoy a Mint Julep in the comfort of your own home, with or without your derby hat.

Asian Inspired Salmon

Fresh salmon is amazing. Ask any bear living along the Pacific Coast, and it will fully agree, assuming it’s not considering you as its next meal. It is rich, meaty, and delicately flavored. As a result, whether you cook it over a fire, grill it, or prepare it in the oven, the sauce should enhance, not overpower, the salmon. 

Flo Braker’s Tangy Lemon Custard Tart with Pomegranate Gelee

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Flo Braker is a fabulous baker and her book Baking for All Occasions is filled with wonderful creations. One of our all time favorites, which is a hit with everyone who tries it, is her Tangy Lemon Custard Tart with Pomegranate Gelee. Decorate the top with halved cherries and blueberries and it makes a perfect dessert for the Fourth of July, but don’t be limited to these fruits; use any stone fruits you’d like!

Persian Saffron Chicken

Can we ever have too many recipes using chicken? Amazingly enough, while meat consumption is down, Americans eat about 60 pounds of chicken a year which breaks down to about five pounds a month. So, in my opinion, the answer is no! And, if rotisserie chicken grabbed on the go is your default (and even if it isn’t), it’s time to try something deliciously different. You can prepare the chicken up to two days ahead of time, perfect for entertaining. This also allows the flavors to fully develop.

Savory Vegetable Galette

Spring farmers’ markets and produce stores are so wonderful to peruse and fill our bags and baskets with their deliciousness. Finally, choices other than kale, cabbage and iceberg lettuce! Everything just pops and begs to be eaten — lettuces, baby spinach, leeks, garlic shoots, baby carrots, English peas, snap peas, asparagus, fava beans, even little zucchinis and squash blossoms. Woo-hoo! Sadly, some things are harder to find, specifically artichokes. This is a big blow for people like me who adore them. The problem? A lack of bio-diversity.

Italian Custard Cake

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Courtesy of Weezie Mott

Weezie Mott ran a cooking school in Alameda.  She and her husband, lived in Italy for several years and later led European culinary tours for years. When Weezie served me this cake, it was love at first bite. I immediately asked for the recipe and promised my undying loyalty. It’s a little labor intensive, but you will receive so much praise for your effort that you won’t mind in the end.

Saffron Bread

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Saffron has been a coveted spice used by people across many cultures for roughly 3,500 years. A little more than 200 years ago England was the world’s largest producer of saffron, growing it in the loamy soil in Essex County. Interestingly enough, David Smale has revived the art of growing saffron near the village of Saffron Walden. The town’s name was changed to its current moniker during the Middle Ages when saffron was first grown there.

The Important Truth About Saffron

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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.

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  • Shrimp and White Bean Salad with Citrus-Mint Dressing

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    While a chilly winter day complete with snow flurries is thrilling in November or December, by March who needs it, especially a late season blizzard or ice storm! And it isn’t just the weather. Market produce looks tired (except for the kale and cabbage), and finding good lettuce can be a fantasy . While I now live near America’s “salad bowl,” I was born in Cleveland, so I know how winter can drag on and on.

    Guinness Gingerbread Cupcakes with Lime-Vanilla Frosting

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     Adapted from David Lebovitz’ Ready for Dessert

    In honor of Irish heritage (mine and a lot of other Americans who also have Irish ancestors), I wanted to make something special for those who celebrate St. Paddy’s Day. Unfortunately, the Irish are not known for their desserts. However, Guinness Stout is in every Irish pub and is the beverage of choice on March 17th.

    Shrimp with Remoulade Sauce

    http://vanillaqueen.com/new-orleans-style-beignets/

    When it comes to good food, Southern Louisiana does not disappoint! Along with a bountiful harvest of seafood and the combination of traditional Southern, Creole and Cajun cooking, they’ve enriched our national cuisine with Jambalaya, Etouffee, Gumbo, Po’Boy’s — and that’s just a few of their long list of specialties.

    Smoked Rainbow Trout and Endive Salad

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    Just a few weeks ago I’m sure I came across a recipe for Smoked Trout and Endive Salad. It was posted by someone who said she had discovered the recipe in Alice Waters’ American Vegetable Cookbook. It sounded like a great base for a full meal salad. Later, when I attempted to check on the dressing ingredients, I couldn’t find the recipe anywhere, including Alice’s cookbook, which leads me to wonder if I dreamed it.

    Chicken Tetrazzini

    Food history is always fascinating. It’s like an archeology dig that you can then eat. My mother made Chicken Tetrazzini for dinner when I was growing up and it was a favorite of mine because it was the right kind of cozy on a cold, wet winter night. It’s an ideal recipe to use up leftover roasted or rotisserie chicken (or turkey), which was precisely why I just made it again for the first time in ages. It is also an incredibly wet, dreary February so it served as a useful way to warm my body and spirit as well as warming my kitchen and office thanks to the oven.

    Why is vanilla so expensive?

    Have you noticed that the cost of cookies, cakes and ice creams have been creeping up? Most desserts use vanilla, and vanilla prices have skyrocketed since 2014. Could that be it? Absolutely! And why is vanilla so expensive now? The answer may surprise you. Read on.

    As vanilla prices rise, so do baked goods. Picture credit: http://experimentalgastronomy.wordpress.com

    As vanilla prices rise, so do baked goods.  Or do they? Picture credit: The Experimental Gastronomy

    Like everything else, the cost of vanilla is affected by supply and demand, and today the vanilla supply is down – WAY DOWN. The reasons will surprise you!

    Tropical farmers who grow coffee, cacao, vanilla, sugar and a few other crops, constantly face fluctuating prices for their crops due to supply and demand. And because vanilla is by far the smallest of the tropical luxury crops, the vanilla industry faces dramatic fluctuations.

    Is Fair Trade vanilla really fair?

    Did you know there is a dark side to fair trade vanilla?

    According to the World Fair Trade Organization, the definition of Fair Trade is as follows:

    “Fair Trade is a trading partnership, based on dialogue, transparency and respect, that seek greater equity in international trade. It contributes to sustainable development by offering better trading conditions to, and securing the rights of, marginalized producers and workers – especially in the South. Fair Trade Organizations, backed by  consumers, are engaged actively  in supporting producers,  awareness  raising  and  in  campaigning  for  changes  in  the  rules  and  practice  of conventional international trade.”

    What’s not to like about this? Fairness for farmers, which helps them and their families to thrive as well as to continue to produce the foods, spices and other ingredients that we love and use regularly.

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