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Homemade Vanilla Extract

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I’ve been meaning to post this recipe for a while as it’s completely changed my cooking and baking habits and after such a busy week, it’s nice to to feature something simple and slow to develop. More like musing than cooking, it’s perfect after a fortnight that’s seen me submit the manuscript on the slow cooker book to Ebury, feature in the Metro and finish the three days of photography on the book, seeing my creations come to life in a way I hadn’t envisioned when I was eating them.

It was a real pleasure to collaborate with Mister North this week as he is the photographer for the book. My writing and his photography was enhanced by the wonderful food styling of Olia Hercules who was a real joy to work with. It was also great fun spending time with my lovely editor Laura Higginson. And of course having the excuse to eat all the food from the shoot. Very different to my previous life working in fashion…

I felt a pang when my borrowed slow cookers went back to the publisher this week and I comforted myself by pot roasting a chicken in my own one and baking myself a cake which is where the vanilla extract came in. A splash of vanilla in any cake, custard or dessert tends to lift it from good to glorious, but there’s no way round it, vanilla extract is expensive and I usually find myself rationing it like fine perfume.

However just before Christmas 2012 whilst perusing Ebay, I discovered that you can buy vanilla pods for a fantastic prices on there. Scoring 32 of them for £8, I assumed they’d at least have a hint of vanilla and look nice tied to Christmas presents or nestled into sugar. When they arrived however I could smell the rich sweet scent of vanilla through the package before I’d opened it. Unwrapped, each pod was sticky soft and left a sprinkle of vanilla seeds behind on your fingers like fairy dust. And that was just the A Grade pods. They go up to AAAAA in quality.

As with any excess of anything, I thought I’d stick them in some booze and see what happened. Three pods and a smidge of sugar went into some vodka for the perfect festive tipple. I also had a cheap bottle of dark rum left over from a mojito night and wondered what would happen if I put 10 in there and left it in the dark for three months? Vanilla extract that will knock your socks off and make those bottles of Nielsen Massey seem like The Body Shop oil you dabbed behind your ears at the age of twelve.

Rich chestnut brown, spicy sweet and utterly heady, this extract was amazing. The seeds melt into it to make it thick and glossy and the flavour is so intense you need half the amount you normally do. Considering those posh bottles retail at £4.70 per 100ml or around £47 per litre, making your own makes financial sense too. I made around 750ml of extract in December 2012 and gave small bottles of it as gifts, keeping some for myself. I’ve tested two cookbooks since then, baked myself silly and still have 150ml left. My vanilla beans are also currently brewing a second batch too which is just as intensely flavoured meaning I will probably never need buy commercial stuff again.

Homemade Vanilla Extract (makes 700ml)

  • 700ml dark rum
  • 10 vanilla pods

So simple to make. Simply split your pods so that they are opened out and flattened slightly. Pop them into a clean Kilner jar and cover with dark rum. I used Basics for this. Put somewhere dark and cool for at least 3 months. Shake the jar every few days to help infuse it all.

After 3 months, decant around 50ml into a small bottle and use. Leave the rest to keep infusing for up 9 months or decant it to give as gifts. I put half a pod into each small bottle to keep the infusion going and look pretty. I don’t bother to strain the extract as the seeds look beautiful to me.

Friends I gave this to asked for more for Christmas 2013 and I do actually have some waiting to be delivered! If you are a baker, this is a brilliant way to make the most of vanilla in your kitchen. You will never think of vanilla as bland or flavourless again once you’ve tasted this.

 

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Festive Flies’ Graveyards

 

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Being organised enough to make my own Christmas pudding this year is fantastic because it’s given me the opportunity to make these fabulous festive flies’ graveyards (or fruit squares for the more squeamish) with the leftovers.

These buttery pastry squares packed with dried fruit were a must have at every tea time get together when I was a child. Both my granny and my Aunt Kathleen made them beautifully and I felt I had a lot to live up to trying to get mine right, so I’ve kept it simple here for this Observer Food Monthly piece and used my granny’s recipe to be sure.

These are fantastic with some leftover cranberry sauce dolloped in and make a great alternative to mince pies when you are a month into the season. Enjoy with custard or brandy butter for more of a dessert feel. I’m off to whip up another batch for the family now I’m home.

You can find the full recipe here. What other leftovers are you using up this week?

Three Leaf Saag Aloo

kale alooThis is a saag aloo in the proper sense as it isn’t just spinach but slow cooked spiced potatoes with kohlrabi leaves, beetroot tops and kale. Or basically ‘the perfect dish for this time of year’. Fresh from all those greens, but warming with the spices and just the right side of stodge with the spuds, it’s early autumn in a dish.

I am not very good with what we think of as Indian food in this country (although I know we combine Bangladeshi and Pakistani food under that umbrella term as well.) We rarely ate much Indian food as when we were growing up and I’ve always found the taste of the generic curry powder or paste rather cloying. I also don’t like cumin, fenugreek or turmeric. And to top it all off, the only time I’ve ever been to a curry house was when I’d just started at university and it was a crash course in chilli oneupmanship, 19 year old boys drinking beer and girls worrying about calories. We only left to go to the Bonfire Night parade in Lewes and the naked anti Catholic sentiment there really didn’t make my korma sit well. Read more

Sichuan Pepper Cured Mackerel

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The weather has warmed up just enough and the sun has come out long enough to make it feel like summer might be limbering up to actually do something. It’s making me crave fresh bright flavours after the long cold months that have only been coped with by eating lots of stodge and stews. I’ve particularly been enjoying fish recently, visiting my favourite fishmonger, Dagon’s in Brixton Village, to try as many sorts as possible including tilapia, snapper and butterfish.

Each has been delicious, but all that newness has given me a sudden urge for something familiar. I picked up a rainbow trout and grilled it with dill and lemon, but it was the mackerel that caught my eye. I think the most beautiful fish on the counter, that oily flesh is so versatile and flavoursome and allows for lots of experimentation. I had intended to barbecue it if the weather held and serve with salsa verde, but the skies were as grey as the fish skin and I decided against it.

Mister North’s love for Fuschia Dunlop’s Every Grain of Rice has revived my love of sichuan peppercorns with their fabulous fizzing flavour and I immediately thought of their floral tones with the fish. Not keen to grill oily fish indoors since I don’t have an extractor fan, I wondered if I could try a cured version instead to capture those light summery flavours. It turns out to be very easy and a perfect thing to do if you don’t want to heat the kitchen up…

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The Perfect Potato Salad

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I remain ever optimistic that spring, never mind summer, is just around the corner. Warm light evenings, the smell of barbecues in the air, Pimms on the patio, all the indicators of warm weather for many. But for me, I know it’s summer when it’s time to make potato salad.

Mister North and I grew up on potato salad. Family picnics and barbecues always involved a big salad bowl of it designed to last several days out. But because our mum makes the best potato salad possible, it never lasted more than one meal with the last chunk of spud highly prized.

Since we started blogging, I’ve debated whether to share this family secret with you all, but since pretty much every person who has ever tried a batch of the potato salad made the North/South Food way has asked for the recipe, I’ve decided the time has come. The secret is a little bit of milk in with the mayonnaise. Before you raise your brows, it lightens the mayo so that it coats the potatoes better and thus makes the salad creamier without being greasy or overwhelming.

I’ve grown up making this so I never weigh anything so I’m giving you a description not a list.

The Perfect Potato Salad: intended to serve 4

  • 1 kg of salad potatoes such as Charlottes
  • 2 heaped tablespoons mayonnaise
  • 1 tablespoon milk
  • 2 scallions or handful dill, chopped
  • 2 big gherkins, chopped (optional)
  • salt and pepper

You can make this with any potato really, but a firm waxy salad potato like a Charlotte is perfect. Sainsbury’s Basic Salad Potatoes at a quid a bag are simply the ones too knobbly and bobbly to make it to the Taste the Difference range. Cut your potatoes into quarters and leave the skin on. Boil for about 8 minutes or until al dente. You do not want a floury fluffy potato here so don’t overcook.

I flit between two types of potato salad, either a slightly Germanic one with lashings of chopped dill and gherkins or a more Irish version with chopped scallions. Both are delicious. I find the dill version a better basis for a meal and the scallion one a side dish.

If you are doing scallions, slice both the green and white while the potatoes are cooking. Place them in the colander you’ll use to drain the potatoes and then empty the pan of boiling water and potatoes over them. This blanches them and stops them being too oniony. Allow everything to cool for about 30 minutes.

Boil the kettle and fill a mug half full of boiling water. Place your tablespoon in it and allow it to heat up slightly. Then scoop out your mayonnaise into another mug or small bowl. Measure out half a tablespoon of milk. I use semi skimmed. You could use full fat. Mix well. You’re looking for a consistency slightly thicker than double cream, but still suitable for pouring. Add the other half tablespoon if needed (if you use the oddly textured Hellmanns, you probably will.)

Pour the mayo dressing over the still very slightly warm potatoes and the blanched scallions and mix well so it coats well. If you’re using dill instead, add it and the gherkins at this stage. Serve the salad and watch the bowl empty rapidly. My suggestion is to make a lot more than you need. There is never enough…