Extractopia {Making Vanilla Extract, part 2}

Six months ago I embarked upon my adventure in homemade vanilla extract-making. (Read Making Vanilla Extract, part 1) It’s high time I brought you an update.

What I didn’t tell you was that Vanilla and Vanilla Rum were not the only flavors that I made. I also started some Chocolate-Scented Mint extract and Mandarin Orange extract.

I would have made more extracts, but I ran out of empty jars.

Six months later here are the tasty results. As you can see, I managed to use up nearly half a quart of vanilla, and quite a bit of vanilla rum as well. Wow, with retail prices ranging from $2.00 on up, that’s a lotta savings! Not to mention that the taste is out of this world.

from left to right: Vanilla, Mandarin Orange, Vanilla Rum, Chocolate-Scented Mint

When I tasted and compared commercial vanilla extract to my homemade, there was really no comparison. Go to your pantry, put a drop of commercial vanilla extract on your tongue and see. It’s nice, but flat. One dimensional.

The homemade version sparkles. This is not a technical, professional tasting term mind you. Just my personal impression. I don’t mean that it’s bubbly like champagne either, cause it’s not. It’s just got a strong, lively flavor. When the alcohol taste dies down you’re left with that breathtaking real vanilla bean taste.

I remember the first time my mother brought home a vanilla bean. This was exotic stuff back then. I had never seen a vanilla bean in real life before. My mom used it to make vanilla bean custard, simple and magnificent. I was smitten, and to this day absolutely love vanilla just as much as I love chocolate. (Which is a lot, as evidenced by my recent 12 Days of {gluten-free} Chocolate blog series)

Speaking of chocolate, chocolate-scented mint leaves really don’t taste like chocolate mint, but they do smell like it. You can find chocolate-scented mint plants at nurseries or home improvement garden centers.

What’s nice about chocolate-scented mint is that it’s easy to grow but not nearly as invasive as regular mint plants. It smells divine and has beautiful deep green leaves. And when you grow your own herbs, you’ll be assured a steady supply of delicious organic seasonings.

To make your own homemade Mint Extract, simply wash and dry fresh mint leaves, any variety and stuff them into a clean glass jar like in the photo at the top of this post. Fill with vodka and put the lid on. Gently shake the jar every day, or every week. After awhile I forgot to shake it, and that’s OK, too. We’re not baking angel food cake or souffle here. After several months I took the old leaves out and put fresh leaves in. Finally I declared it done and strained the leaves out as you can see below.

Absolutely amazing! Smooth and sweet. It smells and tastes just like liquid Starlight Mints. Somehow along the way the chocolate scent vanished. At one point, it had a very strong medicinal taste. That disappeared as well. Can you imagine the fabulous hot chocolate this is going to make! Why I ever used such as small jar is beyond me.

And the Mandarin Orange extract. Same process: Wash and dry organic citrus. Zest the fruit, being careful not to get any of the bitter white pith. Put zest and vodka into a clean jar. Cap, shake, and wait. Strain out zest when it’s done. See how the color of the zest has been transferred out.

Unfortunately I didn’t use near enough zest for such a large jar, and of course mandarin oranges are out of season in mid summer, so I couldn’t refresh it with new mandarin zest. Although it’s pretty, I am sadly disappointed, especially in comparison with the phenomenal success of the Vanilla, Vanilla Rum, and Chocolate-Scented Mint extracts. But mandarin season is just around the corner and my tree is full of fruit, so I’ll just have to wait awhile longer. Patience is definitely a virtue when it comes to making your own homemade extracts.

What flavors of homemade extracts have you made (or want to make)?

(This recipe was shared at: Gluten-Free Monday, Fat Tuesday, Fill Those Jars FridayGluten Free Friday)

Fennelicious Guacamole

Beautiful flying saucer squash from Jacinto Farms

I love shopping at farmer’s markets and produce stands. The fruits and veggies as fresh as you can get, usually picked at their peak that very morning as opposed to picked half-ripe and shipped across the country, or even the globe. There’s an element of surprise due to the seasonality of local produce. Are the apricots ready yet? Will they have blackberries or heirloom tomatoes today?

A most pleasant surprise awaited me at Jacinto Farms this week: perfectly ripe avocados, 3 for $1. Count me in! We’re having guacamole tonight!

My guacamole with fennel … simply delish!

Much of my cooking depends not on recipes, but whatever I happen to have on hand. And today I don’t have any cilantro, but I do have fennel.

Fabulous Fennel

If you’re not familiar with fennel, it’s a wonderful vegetable with a bonus: you can use the delicate leafy tops as an herb. Fennel is actually related to the herbs cilantro, dill, parsley, and also carrots. It’s crunchy and slightly sweet, with a touch of anise. The white bulb tastes a bit like licorice-scented celery and used raw is a great addition to salads. Roasted fennel bulb makes a delicious side dish. Chop the green stalks and toss them in salads or mix them with other veggies when making a soup stock or stir-fry. And the feathery fronds make a bright, herbal addition to many dishes.

It’s unfortunately the tail-end of fennel season, so you may not be able to find any right now. Keep your eyes out for fennel when autumn rolls around again and give it a try. In the meanwhile don’t despair, there are lots of fresh summer veggies you can use.

Kitchen Improv: Guacamole

When making guacamole freestyle, don’t limit yourself to just cilantro and chili peppers. Here’s a formula to guide you:

  • Avocados (of course) lightly smashed with a fork or blended in a food processor
  • Acid to prevent browning & add flavor: lemon juice, lime juice, maybe even a splash of orange juice mixed in with the lemon or lime, apple cider vinegar, or powdered citric acid
  • Veggies and/or fruits: tomatoes and onions are great of course, but don’t limit yourself, consider cucumber, celery, bell peppers, fennel, sun-dried tomatoes, olives, and even fruit! Orange sections, strawberries and other berries are a sweet, flavorful addition to creative salads, why not guacamole? Mashed avocado is soft, mild, and smooth. Look for contrasting textures and flavors that play well together.
  • Fresh herbs such as cilantro, parsley, basil, thyme, chives, dill, or fennel fronds can add a fresh, bright note to your guacamole, and enhance the other ingredients you’ve chosen.
  • Spices and seasonings: chili peppers, garlic, cumin, smoked paprika, sea salt, freshly ground pepper, even crumbled bacon or smoked salmon. Guacamole doesn’t always have to be Mexican-flavored or spicy. Try a Thai-inspired guacamole or how about Scandinavian? My fennel guac is mild, but bright and fresh tasting.

Start with your avocados and one main ingredient that you’d like to use. In my case this was the fennel. Then add other ingredients to enhance it, some from each category. No measurements or recipes, just taste and adjust as you go.

I mashed my avocados and added the juice of 1 lemon. Then I chopped some of the fennel bulb, stalks, and fronds, added a couple of chopped tomatoes, a handful of chopped sweet onion, and seasoned with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.

One last consideration: What to dip into your guac. Take your cues from the ingredients and flavors you used to make the guacamole. Baby carrots are perfect for my fennel guacamole. Some yummy dipping options are other raw veggies, tortilla chips or gluten-free crackers if you eat grains, your own homemade grain-free crackers if you don’t. Or simply spread some of your guacamole in a lettuce wrap or traditional sandwich.

What’s in your favorite guacamole?
What creative, new ingredient would you love to try in your guacamole?

(This recipe was shared at: Gluten Free Friday, Wellness Weekend, Fall Harvest Potluck Party)

California Chocolate Pudding

Vegan desserts. Just another culinary oxymoron like white chocolate or healthy junk food?

Technically it is possible to make all kinds of sweet treats from donuts to red velvet cupcakes without animal products. While many debate what it means to be a vegetarian, the definition of vegan is crystal clear: no animal-sourced ingredients, period. But when I think of vegan cuisine, I think of fresh, natural, healthy whole foods which only happen to be, by the way, animal-free.

Raw agave syrup and organic cane juice certainly have more syllables than sugar. Unfortunately, more syllables does not equal healthy or natural. Try sweetening your treats with a natural, delicious, healthy whole food such as dates. (While dates do have fewer syllables than sugar, that’s not what makes them so healthy. ;-))

Dates are my all-time favorite natural sweetener. They add a rich, complex sweetness to desserts and are delicious in savory dishes too. They are a good source of potassium and other minerals. I have never personally had a blood sugar problem or carb intolerance with dates, but if blood sugar or food intolerance are issues for you, it’s always a good idea to consult your health care provider first.

What makes dates a healthy sweetener is that they are a whole food: the fiber and nutrients have not been removed. Beets and sugar cane were also healthy whole foods once upon a time before they were processed into sparkly white powder. While honey and maple syrup are certainly natural, to your body they are primarily sugar with traces of nutrients. I prefer to use maple syrup and honey as sweet flavorings rather than as a sweetener. Think spoonfuls, not cupfuls.

I usually soak dates in water or some other liquid and blend them into a smooth date butter for use in desserts. A high-powered blender like a Blend-Tec or VitaMix is perfect for this. (but not absolutely necessary if you don’t have one.) Use more or less liquid depending on the consistency you’re looking for. To try date-sweetened desserts, you can start with my easy California Chocolate Pudding recipe below, but don’t be afraid to experiment with dates in your favorite recipes.

Some people like to use date sugar, which is simply finely ground dried dates (still a whole food, nothing’s been removed but the water, which dates don’t have much of to begin with). I’ve never tried date sugar myself, but I’ve heard it’s a good substitute for regular sugar in recipes. If you have experience with date sugar, I’d love to hear about it in the comments below!

recipe makeover
Here’s a classic vegan recipe: Chocolate Avocado Mousse.

Chocolate. Avocado. What’s not to love? How about those unhealthy (and unnecessary) sweeteners? I’ve replaced them with, surprise, dates! Healthy and delicious. And of course, still gluten and dairy free. I’m new to paleo and therefore, still learning, but I think we can call this recipe paleo-friendly as well. I’m not going to call it mousse, though. Mousse means foam in French, and although it certainly is creamy (thanks to our good friend, avocado), foamy it is not. Pudding is just right. And I’m calling it California pudding because, well, here in sunny southern California, I’m fortunate to be surrounded by avocado and date trees!

It’s pudding, not chiffon cake. The recipe’s not going to fall flat or explode if you change a thing or two, so feel free to experiment and add your own special touch. If you’re a chocolate aficionado, see how different cocoa powders taste in the pudding. A mix of half regular cocoa and half raw cacao powder is divine! 1/2 teaspoon almond extract in place of the 1 teaspoon vanilla is a good variation. Another is: 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon and 1/2 teaspoon vanilla. If I hadn’t tossed out all my coffee, I would give espresso a try in the pudding, either brewed in place of the water or add a spoonful of instant. Please come back and share the results of your variations with me!

This is perfectly sweet if you’re used to the mild sweetness of real dark chocolate or if you generally avoid refined sugar in your diet. If you prefer a sweeter dessert, replace some of the water with maple syrup or your favorite liquid sweetener. Or simply pour the maple syrup over the top like a chocolate-maple sundae.

My favorite way to serve California Chocolate Pudding is with sliced bananas. Fresh berries are great, too. Macadamia nuts are a super paleo topping. Trader Joe’s sells dry toasted, chopped macadamias now, which are as fantastic on salads as they are on chocolate pudding. But I digress, let’s get on to the recipe, shall we?

California Chocolate Pudding

Yield: 4 servings

Serving Size: 3/4 cup

California Chocolate Pudding


  • 1 cup water
  • 1/2 cup chopped dates
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • pinch of salt
  • 1/2 cup cocoa powder
  • 1-1/2 cups mashed avocado (about 2 medium)


  1. Soak chopped dates in water. For a high-powered blender cutting the dates into fourths is enough. For a regular blender or food processor cut into smaller pieces and use hot water. (The easiest way to measure is by volume: Use a clear liquid measuring container and add the water to the 8 ounce line first. Add chopped dates until the mixture reaches the 12 ounce line.) Let them soak for 1/2 hour.
  2. Blend dates and water until smooth. In a Blend-Tec use the "Whole Juice" button. In a food processor, start out with just the dates and add the soaking water gradually to avoid leakage. Push mixture down with a spatula as necessary.
  3. Add the vanilla, salt, and cocoa powder and pulse to combine. Push mixture down with a spatula as necessary.
  4. Add the mashed avocado and pulse to combine until smooth. (Mashed avocado is both easier to measure accurately and easier to blend smoothly into the chocolate mixture. The final mixture will be somewhat thick and you will not be using your machine to smash the avocado, just to combine it with the other ingredients.)
  5. If necessary, add extra water a tablespoon or two at a time to help the ingredients combine smoothly. (Avocado is a natural ingredient, after all, and sometimes they vary in their moisture content. Adding more water can also make the pudding less thick if you prefer a lighter consistency.)
  6. Chill before serving.

(This recipe was shared at: Gluten Free Friday)

Pasta 1-2-3

Need a delicious gluten-free meal in a hurry? Take 3 pantry ingredients: brown rice pasta, fire roasted diced tomatoes, and tuna packed in olive oil, add a few favorite seasonings to make it your own, and you’ve got dinner in not much more time than it takes to boil a pot of water.

Brown rice pasta is delicious in its own right. I often ate it even before giving up gluten. But you have to cook it right.

Cooked correctly, brown rice pasta has a wonderful bite, slightly softer than semolina pasta, but not gummy or sticky. Just about every package you’ll ever find says BE CAREFUL NOT TO OVERCOOK. Don’t ever disregard that warning.

Tips for cooking brown rice pasta

If you’re not accustomed to cooking brown rice pasta, choose a short macaroni style like penne. Less likely to stick to each other than a long pasta such as spaghetti. Brown rice pasta is very mild tasting. Generously salt the water to bring out its flavor. Turn off the burner about 2 minutes before the suggested cooking time is over and place a lid on the pot. When the time is up, check the doneness and always rinse well in cold water after draining.

Pasta improv

A 28-ounce can of fire roasted diced tomatoes sauces a 16-ounce package of pasta perfectly. I add one 5-ounce can of tuna packed in olive oil, but you might prefer two. Or if you’re vegetarian, maybe you’d rather add mushrooms instead.

While the water boils, prepare the sauce. I start with the seasonings:

  • crushed garlic
  • fresh oregano and thyme
  • sea salt (not too much salt at this point, the canned tuna contains added salt)
  • freshly ground pepper
  • a generous pinch of ground chili
  • smoked paprika to bring out the smokiness of the fire roasted tomatoes

Heat a large pan over medium and drain the olive oil from the tuna into the heated pan. Add your choice of seasonings and cook several minutes. If anything sticks, add a spoonful of tomato juice from the can. Next add the tuna and cook a couple minutes more, stirring to combine well. Finally add the can of tomatoes, juice and all. Bring to a simmer and taste. Add a pinch of sugar if desired (I like coconut palm sugar) and adjust the other seasonings as well.

By now your brown rice pasta should be done. Drain and rinse well in cold water. Make sure the water is drained well after rinsing, then add the cooked pasta to the sauce in your pan. Combine gently and heat thoroughly, until the pasta is hot again and any liquid in the pan is reduced. Splash a bit of good quality olive oil in if desired, and serve.

Have fun!

This is not a “recipe”. Don’t worry too much about measurements or duplicating my ingredients exactly. Relax and have fun with it. If you’re unsure how much to use, add a little, taste and add more if needed. Remember you can always add more, but you can’t take it away.

Use your imagination and the ingredients in your pantry to make it different each time. Olives go great with tuna. Sheep’s milk feta is wonderful with fire roasted tomatoes. Fresh basil. Dried herbs. Minced onions and celery. Chopped green veggies. What would you add?

Lemongrass Mahi Mahi

Marinades are one of those irresistible improvisational creations. Not much in the way of science to worry about usually, just imagine the flavors you love and swirl them together in a sea of deliciousness.

The only problem one encounters occasionally in improvisational marinades is happening upon utter perfection, and having no way to duplicate exactly what you’ve done. A way around this would to be measure everything carefully as you go and write it all down, but that takes away half the fun.

This Lemongrass Mahi Mahi is one of those problems…

Serious. Died-and-gone-to-heaven good.

I don’t have the measurements for you, but I do remember what I mixed together. You’re on your own for the proportions. Luckily for both of us, marinades are rather forgiving concoctions. Here’s what I used:

  • coconut milk
  • minced garlic
  • minced red & green Thai chilies
  • lemongrass, sliced & smashed
  • green onion, sliced crosswise
  • celtic sea salt
  • coconut sugar
  • galangal powder
  • amchur powder

Cook as desired and serve over brown rice, with romaine lettuce leaves for scooping. (Or go paleo-style and skip the rice, just serve with romaine.)

Lemongrass can be bought fresh or frozen in Asian supermarkets. You can even grow it yourself if you live in a warm climate. Lemongrass gives bright, citrus-y notes to curries, soups, and marinades, and goes particularly well with garlic and chili.

You can cook with lemongrass in one of two ways. First, like in my marinade above, in large pieces used for flavor and removed before eating. Smashing the lemongrass with a large cleaver helps release more flavor. The second way is to cut the lemongrass into small pieces and pulverize them with a mortar and pestle or food processor, then add to food before cooking.

Galangal powder is available in Asian and Indian markets. Galangal is a relative of ginger root and tastes a bit like peppery ginger. It is used in Thai and Indian cooking. It goes well with fish, as well as garlic and chili. A little goes a long way. Like ginger, galangal can also be used fresh.

Amchur powder, or ground dried green mango, can be found in Indian markets or online from Rani’s World Foods. Amchur has a sour, acidic taste and is used in curries and chutneys. In marinades it makes a good tenderizer. Use it with fish and other meats, in vegetable curries, and wherever you’d like to add a bit of tart flavor.

What’s your favorite marinade mixture?

Butternut Squash Soup Improv

Remember that half of a pureed butternut squash from my mac & cheese? Well, here’s the soup it grew up to be: Indian-Spiced Butternut Squash Soup

Soup is the ultimate improvisational food. I can’t resist the lure of a large soup pot on a cold day. It’s so much fun to throw in a bit of this and that, plus all my favorite veggies. Simmer, taste, and adjust the seasonings for soup perfection.

I didn’t have a whole day to devote to broth- and soup-making, so I sauteed a small onion together with a garlic clove, added an Organic Country Herb Medley bouillon cube (from Edward and Sons Trading Company) and a dash of sea salt and freshly ground pepper. Organic Country Herb Medley bouillon cubes are gluten-free, vegan, and made from yeast extract, a variety of herbs, and sea salt. When you don’t have time to make homemade broth, these bouillon cubes have a fresh, natural taste. Not like some bouillon that tastes like it should be used to season artificially-flavored potato chips.

Just as I was finishing up the soup, in true improvisational fashion, I suddenly wanted a gingery butternut squash soup. Since this soup was done cooking, the time when I should have fried fresh ginger was long past. I took out the ground ginger. Next to the ground ginger was my Indian spices, and well, an Indian-spiced butternut squash soup does sound absolutely heavenly.

So I added a generous amount of ginger and Indian chili powder, some cumin seed, galangal, and turmeric, and a pinch of garam masala. In essence, all the Indian spices on hand that were already ground. After all there’s no time for grinding and frying whole spices when as previously noted, the soup is already cooked.

Finally, I topped it all off with a garnish of fresh thyme leaves. Sure enough, simply heavenly.

What’s your favorite soup to make?

(This recipe was shared at: Fill Those Jars FridayGluten Free FridayFall Harvest Potluck Party)