All this talk of drought has made me thirsty! I’m off my soapbox and mixing up a drink to quench my thirst. (Can you say short attention span?) I am going to take a left turn here and talk about a very spirited subject instead of a hot one.
I recently attended a very gentle summer birthday party where the sun glimmered through the trees and sparkled off a pitcher of blood red sangria. I was struck with the beauty of this drink with all the fruit of the season floating in it giving it the quintessential flavor of summer. No summer is complete without at least one pitcher of sangria to enjoy.
Sangria is a wine punch that was born in Spain close to the time of Christ’s birth which is kind of interesting cause the word “sangria” means blood, or the color of blood. It is also interesting because very first beginnings of sangria were from roman soldiers who invaded the region 200 years earlier and stained the earth red with the blood of the locals. It was those soldiers that planted the first red grapes that sangria is made from.
The Romans not only introduced grapes to Spain but also their spiced wine that they loved to drink. The water was well known for being as dangerous as the swords of the Romans so they drank wine instead. It was watered down a bit and spiced heavily with herbs and exotic spices that they just happened to have in their rucksacks. The Spanish got even more creative and added luscious fruits from the area and sangria was born.
As the years went by and the Romans faded back to Rome with their rucksacks full of spices, sangria was made with just fruit. After all the Spanish had abundant fruit to spare and into the sangria it went! A lovely wind brought sangria to the shores of America in 1964 where it was served at the World Fair in New York and has been a sensation here ever since.
I highly recommend making your own sangria as it is as easy as falling off a slippery log. The pre-made sangrias are full of corn syrup, other unmentionables and made with poor wine. It is well understood that a marginal wine can be made better by turning it into sangria but I suggest you use a good wine, not the best, but a good mid-shelf wine to make sangria. The best wines to use are fruity dry wines like zinfandel, Syrah or a Malbec. (I like to use a zinfandel like Clos Du Bois, which is surprisingly good and a great value at around $15 a bottle.) If you want to follow in the steps of the Spanish try making it with a Tempranillo, Garnacha or a Roija.
Sangria is probably the most adaptable recipe in the world as it takes wine, fruit, fruit juice, a little sweetener and possibly some brandy. Done. Now get creative. You can even make a “sangria blanco” with white wine of your choice. The sky is the limit to experiment with this wonderful wine drink. I recommend serving it in wine glasses with ice and maybe a sprig of mint. I have shared a couple recipes for you to rift off of or try just as they are. Enjoy the fruits of the summer….in sangria.
Makes about 8 servings. Feel free to add any fruit that is laying around, I added a peach. (no bananas please)
1/2 cup of water
1/4 -1/2 cup of honey (depending on how sweet you want it)
1 bottle of dry red wine such as Syrah or zinfandel
1/2 cup of orange juice (Fresh squeezed is best!)
1/2 cup of brandy
1/2 cup of an orange liqueur like Cointreau or orange curacao
1 orange, cut into wedges, peels on
1 lemon, cut into wedges, peels on
1 lime, cut into wedges, peels on
Add the half cup of water and honey to a small sauce pan and warm up till the honey is completely dissolved. Add that mix and the rest of the ingredients to a pitcher and chill for at least 3 hours and preferably overnight. Serve over ice, fruit and all.
NW sparkling berry sangria
Makes 12 or so servings. If you want to get really creative, make juice ice cubes the night before by filling an ice cube tray with pear or apple juice and a few berries per ice cube and freeze overnight. If you use these ice cubes in your sangria it will not get watered down. Tricky huh?
1 firm pear, cut into wedges
1 peach, cut into wedges
A couple pints of berries like blackberry, blueberry or strawberries
1 cup of a pear brandy like Clear Creek (Local and delicious!)
1 bottle of a good crisp rosé (Stoller and Ponzi make good ones)
1 bottle of a sparkling wine like prosecco or Lambrusco
Mix the berries, pear, peach, brandy and rosé together in a pitcher and set in the fridge overnight to chill and marry the flavors. When you are ready to serve, pour the bottle of sparkling wine into the pitcher with the brandy mix and serve immediately with ice.
“When we think about threats to the environment, we tend to picture cars and smokestacks, not dinner. But the truth is, our need for food poses one of the biggest dangers to the planet.” National Geographic on the future of food.
I think it is safe to say that our climate is changing. This is a tough subject that even though it is talked about a lot, there doesn’t seem to be much being done to change it. I think that is because everyone is a little at loss on what we can do to avert this. I know I am. But it has come home to roost here on our lovely coast and it is time to talk about how it affects us, our food and what we can do about it.
Everything about our food is tied to climate conditions. Our agriculture and fisheries are highly dependent on specific climate conditions to flourish. We see those changes all around us as our ocean warms and our rain and snow become elusive. The tomatoes may love it but there are many ancient ecosystems that have been in place for hundreds of thousands of years, that don’t.
On top of this concerning climate change is the looming fact that humans are thriving and the population of the world is expected to increase by two billion more in the next 30 years. That is a population increase of more than 35% to our already weighty footprint. So the million dollar questions are how are we going to feed our population and not ruin this fragile planet? And what can the individual do to make a difference?
National Geographic recently did an in-depth study into this very challenging subject and have come up with some pretty good answers to these questions. They have a 5 step plan on feeding the world and lowering our impact on our environment that is quite frankly brilliant. It is a very practical and thoughtful strategy that I want to share with you here over the next few articles as this is a very important subject that affects everything; our planet, our wildlife, our food, our children and ourselves.
To start up the great plan to save the world, I thought I’d share this wonderful recipe for carrot top pesto in the spirit of reducing food waste. It was developed by a London chef, April Bloomfield, for those carrot tops that we all toss in the compost. If you have never nibbled on a carrot top, there is a happy surprise waiting for you. They have an earthy, spicy flavor to them (and a bit bitter too) that you will find plenty of places to use them. I treat them like herbs and sprinkle them in salads or add them to stir fries and marinades. What a delicious way to improve our climate.
Roasted carrots with carrot top pesto and burrata
It is easy to strip all the carrot leaves off the stem in one fell swoop. Pinch the stem near the top with the fingers of one hand. Then run the fingers of your other hand down the length of the stem from top to bottom.
2 cups of lightly packed carrot leaves, stems discarded, roughly chopped
A small handful of fresh basil leaves, roughly chopped
1/4 cup of nuts such as walnuts, filberts or pine nuts
1/2 cup of parmesan cheese, finely grated
1 garlic clove, quartered
1/2 tsp of a flaky salt like Maldon’s or Kosher
1/3 cup of really nice extra virgin olive oil
Pesto is made very easily in a food processor and if you do not have one, go buy one. (You can also make it in the blender but just make sure and chop everything a bit finer before subjecting your blender to it.)
In your handy dandy food processor add the carrot tops and basil and pulse a few times. Then add the nuts, cheese, garlic and salt and pulse several more times then process full on while slowly pouring in the olive oil. Stop and scrape down the sides occasionally till the pesto is blended well and beautifully fragrant. Taste and season with more salt if you fancy.
20 small carrots, about the size of your fingers, scrubbed but not peeled. Leave 1/2 inch of the green tops on them. If they are big, cut them in half
3 Tbs of very good virgin olive oil, divided
A few pinches of Kosher or another flaky salt and pepper
1/2 pound burrata cheese or marinated fresh mozzarella balls
A handful of carrot top leaves
Preheat your oven to 450 degrees with a rack in the center. Pour 2 tablespoons of the olive oil into a heavy roasting pan big enough to hold all them carrots in a single layer. Toss the carrots in the olive oil, position them to a single layer and then pop in the oven to roast, stirring every once in a while, till they are done about 10-15 minutes. Sprinkle a few pinches of salt and some pepper on the carrots and toss again. Let the carrots cool for a bit to serve.
Cut the burrata in half and arrange on a pretty serving platter. If you are using mozzarella balls, scatter them about the serving platter. Arrange the roasted carrots so they are pointing this way and that, rather rebellious like. Add 3-4 Tbs of the pesto in little dollops, here and there. (You’ll have left over pesto to use in a million delicious ways like on your eggs and in your salad.) Drizzle one Tbs of the olive oil over everything, sprinkle a few chopped nuts and garnish with carrot leaves. Serve either as an appetizer, vegetarian main dish, or a side. It does it all!
“Life is just a bowl of cherries, don’t take it serious; it’s too mysterious” Lew Brown
Cherries just make me happy. I bought a bunch of cherries at the first farmer’s market of the season and when I started munching on them, the old song, “Life’s is just a bowl of cherries” came dancing into my head. The red juice was staining my fingers and I was chewing around the pits and spitting them out and thinking that song was spot on. Life doesn’t get much better.
We are in the height of cherry season here in the NW, with cherry stands popping up everywhere. This season is through July and is fast and furious as cherries are highly perishable. The State of Washington grows 40% of the country’s sweet cherries but what most people do not know is that Oregon has quite a history with cherries too. The beautiful and uber popular Bing cherry was developed in Milwaukie Oregon in the late 1800’s by Seth Lewelling and his Chinese foreman, Ah Bing. (It was named after Bing when he couldn’t get back to the US from China after going there for a visit.)
Cherries are an excellent crop here in Oregon where most of them are grown tucked in the shadow of Mt. Hood on hillsides overlooking the Columbia River. The mountain blocks most of the rain that blows in from the west, protecting the cherries from weather that would otherwise split and soften the fruit. The Willamette Valley also have orchards and there have been cherry orchards surrounding The Dalles for generations but the industry has changed over the years.
For one thing, there’s more profit in fresh cherries now. It used to be that the lag time to get the cherries from the tree to the mouth was so great that only people living around cherry orchards had that privilege. Now with planes, trucks and refrigeration much of the world gets to enjoy fresh cherries. In Japan, the Rainier cherry is considered a delicacy. They get a buck a piece for them since it is so expensive to get them there fast, but it can be done.
A generation ago, it was impossible, so the industry centered on the sugary, lipstick-red preserved concoction called the maraschino cherry. We all remember those, if only in our “Shirley Temple” drink as a child. The maraschino was originally created from Marasca, a small black cherry that grew wild on the coast of present-day Croatia. To preserve them, the ancients pickled the cherries in seawater then marinated them in a liqueur made from the Marasca’s juice and pits. A taste for the marinated Marascas soon drifted beyond the Croatian shores and an ingenious recipe was created to turn Oregon cherries into maraschinos.
Because of this, processing maraschino cherries became a big industry in Oregon during the mid-20th century. The nation’s two largest maraschino manufacturers are still located in Oregon to this day. I remember being told as a child that the maraschino cherry wouldn’t digest for 7 years in your gut. (Now who would tell a kid that?) I stopped eating them and so did many other people and the maraschino cherry fell from grace to be replaced by the fresh cherry industry.
One of my favorite ways to eat cherries, other than fresh, is in the delicate and delicious French dish clafoutis. (Pronounced “kla-foo-tee) The French have a way with food and this dish perfectly highlights the lovely cherry suspended in a custardy goodness and it’s easy! Some French bakers like to bake it with the pits in the cherries because they release an almond flavor into the dish. I prefer to pit my cherries and add a bit of almond flavor so I don’t have to worry about someone breaking a tooth on a pit! This is the one reason to buy a cherry pitter which I am eternally grateful for so that life is not the pits, just a clafoutis full of sweet cherries.
Julia Child’s Cherry Clafoutis
This luscious dessert is super simple! To make gluten and dairy free sub almond flour for flour and coconut milk for milk. It serves 6-8 (Maybe, depending on your portions sizes)
1/3 cup of organic granulated sugar
1/2 cup of flour
1.25 cups of whole milk (preferably the Bennet Farm’s milk)
1 TBLS of vanilla
2 tsps of amaretto (optional)
OR a few drops of almond extract
Pinch of salt
3 cups of pitted bing cherries
1/4 cup of sugar for the top
Powdered sugar (optional)
Turn on the oven to 350 degrees and butter up 6 ramekins or a ceramic tart dish. (Try not to use metal and DO NOT use a cast iron skillet it makes the clafoutis turn grey and taste like iron. As you can tell, I thought this was a good idea…once.)
This job is done best in a blender. I know Julia Childs did not make it in a blender but she would love how this turns out. Start by putting the flour, eggs and sugar in the blender and whirling on medium speed till blended well. In a small bowl, combine the milk, vanilla, amaretto and salt then slowly add the milk mixture to the egg mixture while the blender is going. When your batter is smooth pour it into your prepared dish(s) and then drop the cherries in so they are well distributed.
Tuck in the oven to bake for 10 minutes, then carefully sprinkle the 1/4 cup of sugar on top, close the oven and bake for another 30-35 minutes for the large dish and 20 minutes more for the ramekins. The clafoutis are done when they are puffed, golden and a knife comes out clean when poked in the center. Let them cool for a few minutes then sprinkle with powdered sugar and serve warm or at room temperature with whip cream.
In our fast paced age of information it is refreshing to engage in the practice of eating slow foods like ancient grains. In fact, the only thing fast about ancient grains are how fast they are catching on right now. They are so popular that Cheerios is actually putting out a cereal with a scant amount of ancient grains in them in hopes to revive their market. (Isn’t that a contradictory? Fast cereal with old slow grains??)
I have been eyeing this ancient grain movement with interest and curiosity. I mean I was cooking these grains back in my hippy momma days where I whipped out millet seed loafs with tomato gravy and handed out spelt cookies to all the neighborhood children in hopes of rescuing them from their Oreos. So this movement isn’t new to all of us, but Maria Speck’s book “Simply Ancient Grains” re-introduces us to these old friends (or new) in an easy and engaging way.
I think the reason I stopped cooking them so much was two fold, they are slow to cook and I have shied away from the highly processed and tainted grains that are low in nutrition and high in carbs. In this book, Maria introduced easy ways of cooking these old slow grains so that you can have them more often and offers fun delicious recipes to get you in the spirit of trying them plus reminded me of their excellent untainted nutrition.
Maria has offered me a new conversation with some old friends and I’m looking forward to making a pot of tea and getting reacquainted by making “barley thumbprints” and “kamut shortbread with hazelnuts”. Or waking up in the morning and enjoying a bowl of “burgundy bulgur with blueberries and orange blossom water” or “coconut buckwheat porridge with cinnamon and buttered dates”. Seriously, after reading this cookbook, it is hard to not want to take out stock in “Bob’s Red Mill” ancient grains. (They carry all of them!)
But to preserve the budget and start the conversation I made the beautiful dish, “cardamom infused black rice porridge with blueberries and pistachios” for breakfast and it was delightful company. (I had the black rice on hand) It struck me as I was eating it, how simple food that has deep history is as nourishing emotionally as it is nutritionally. Thank you Maria Speck for reuniting me (and many others) with some long lost friends.
The only bummer about this beautiful cookbook is that I really really like the pictures of the dishes and even though there are a quite a few lovely pictures some of them are of the vegetable/fruit or grain highlighted in the recipe and wasted a full color page on that. Come on now, if you are going to use expensive color ink on a picture, how bout the recipe at hand? Rant over and off to have another conversation with old friends.
Cardamom infused black rice porridge with blueberries and almonds This porridge is beautiful, fragrant, delicious and earthy. I loved it! Make sure and always use organic rice. I used Lotus Foods brand.
The night before;
¾ cup of black rice
2 whole cardamom pods
1.5 cups of boiling water
In the morning;
1 cup of whole milk, half and half or coconut milk (Which is what I used, so yummy!)
3 TBLS of maple syrup
3/4 tsp of ground cardamom
1 cup of purple berries like blackberries or blueberries, frozen or fresh (I used blackberries)
2 TLS of chopped nuts of choice (I used almonds)
The night before, place your beautiful rice in a heavy little saucepan and pour the boiling water over it, put the lid on and go to bed. Sleep with dreams of whole grains and a purple breakfast. (I did!) The next morning sneak down to make sure the rice is still there. (It should be) You will be surprised to see the beautiful purple water and that the rice seems uncooked. Fear not! Add the one cup of milk or coconut milk, maple syrup, ground cardamom and bring to a boil over medium high heat stirring often, then lower the heat to medium or whatever it takes on your stove to create a lively simmer. Simmer for 8-10 minutes or until the rice is the softness you desire. (I liked mine slightly chewy) Add the berries and simmer for about 2-4 minutes more or until the berries are warmed and tender. Divide the purple mix between 4- 6 bowls, or 2 hungry ones, and sprinkle with the almonds. Serve with a dollop of yogurt, more milk or maple syrup if desired but I thought it was plenty sweet just like it is. Make sure and take time to smell the beautiful bowl of goodness and chew well.
“The chicken has, quietly but inexorably, become essential.” Donna J. Haraway
The egg comes before the chicken. At least that is how it is in my world. Edition before last, I wrote about the incredible edible egg and now we are going to focus on the humble chicken. Now this uncelebrated bird has some surprising facts to it. For instance did you know that if you added up all the world’s cats, dogs, pigs, cows and toss in all the rats for fun, there would still be more chickens on this earth?
Yes, it is true, this simple creature has captured the world and we don’t even know it. If it had a brain bigger than a walnut, it could rule. Chickens are 50 billion strong and on every continent in the world except Antarctica, and they still make it there in frozen entrees. (The reason that they do not have them there is because they carry a virus that emperor penguins chicks can catch.) So conceivably they have us surrounded, but we can rest easy as the chicken isn’t intending on ruling the world, just looking for a juicy bug to eat.
It seems the chicken has become extremely important to our world and no one has even noticed. It all started in the thick humid jungles of Asia where the ancestor to the modern chicken, the red jungle fowl, hatched into the world. There is evidence that in Southern China chickens lived with humans over 8,000 years ago, making the chicken the first domesticated animal.
From there this ubiquitous bird started its successful march across the world spreading to the Indus Valley, (Pakistan) then to Eastern Europe, Egypt, and when the Romans got a hold of them, they went everywhere! The ancient Polynesians even had them and that has the Archeologists tail feathers in a twist as they can’t figure out how that happened.
Why? Because humans love to eat them and their eggs. Chickens are the worlds favored source of protein, be it egg or meat. The meat of the chicken is an intriguing canvas for many dishes that crosses cultures and continents with ease. All countries have their favorite part of the bird and dishes that are cultural stables. The eggs are a nice neat package that can stay fresh for weeks unrefrigerated and they are in every country’s foods as well.
Here is America we love our boneless, skinless chicken breast that are as tasteless and dry as cardboard. I recommend you start cooking with the whole chicken for two very good reasons. First off, the skin and bones add nutrition, moistness and flavor to the bird. Second of all, buying parts of a bird are pretty much guaranteeing that you are buying a chicken that was raised inhumanely in large chicken factories that are hidden from the world in shame.
I buy whole chickens from Lance’s farm vittles (503-322-2226 or at our local farmer’s market) that are grown right here in our own valley and are happy chickens during their short stay on earth. Lance also buys the breed “Red Roaster” which is a slower growing meat chicken that isn’t a monstrosity that the normal Cornish Cross meat chicken is. It also has more flavor. (More flavor is good!)
I feel that everyone should learn to roast a perfect bird. In this following recipe based on a recipe from the great chef Thomas Keller, anyone can. I didn’t believe it could be so easy and good till I tried it and I’m a devotee! Stretch your wings and learn how to trust a chicken for this recipe. It’s not hard and there is a very simple You Tube video that will show you how if you search for “How to truss a chicken.” Use kitchen twine available at almost any store. Make this as a lovely spring Sunday dinner and your status will be elevated to super chicken.
Thomas Keller’s famous simple roast chicken
One farm raised fat chicken, 3-4 pounds
Flaked salt and cracked pepper
2 teaspoons of fresh thyme or rosemary (Or both if you’re feeling crazy!)
1-2 tablespoons of butter
Serve with Dijon mustard if you like
First off, preheat your oven to 450° degrees and lightly grease your baking pan or skillet. (Thomas likes to use a stainless steel sauté pan but I like to use a cast iron skillet) Take your chicken out and rinse it thoroughly and then pat it dry inside and out with paper towels. Thomas stresses that you want the driest heat possible when roasting it to make it turn out moist and delicious.
Next, toss a little salt and pepper in the cavity. Now the fun part, truss the bird. I am not going to explain it here as it might be impossible and with technology available today, just search how to do it on the web. The first video that comes up is an excellent one. Make sure and truss it tight as this is part of the technique to keep the bird moist.
Now put the all trussed up chicken in your prepare pan and rain salt and pepper down on it. Thomas recommends about a tablespoon of each. Some will stick some won’t, don’t stress it. Tuck in the oven for 50-70 mins till done and a thermometer stuck in between the thigh and breast reads 160. I can tell by pricking the thickest part of the thigh with a fork and the juices run clear. Don’t mess with the chicken while it is baking as much as you want to.
When you take it out, add the herbs to the pan juices and then baste the chicken thoroughly. Let it sit 15 minutes then cut the twine, discard and eat the delicious chicken with mustard served on the side. Easy peasy, one two threesy.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” Margaret Mead
I think everyone has a memory of one of their relatives glaring at them and telling them to clean their plate. My grandpa on my mom’s side was the card carrying member of the clean plate society in our family. He would eye your plate with his somewhat milky eyes and look at you in astonishment and declare, “A starving child from (fill in the blank, but it was mostly from a place in Africa) would kill you for that!” I would roll my eyes and oblige him, till he turned his back and then give it to the dog. Mission accomplished, plate cleaned.
Many years later, I finally realize what he was talking about. I’m not talking about the concept of cleaning your plate, that’s not hard to understand. No, I’m talking about the issue of food waste in the world. I know, it’s a dirty subject but the amount of food wasted globally in a year is more than enough to feed 1 billion hungry people. Let me repeat that…..1 billion people. That’s one thousand million hungry people, fed with what we waste a year.
Cart’m Recycling did a waste audit a few years ago. They bravely sorted through 7,000 pounds of our local garbage to see what everybody throws away in our community. Food was the most abundant “single source of waste” by a landslide, right here in our little community. That is more food in our garbage than anything else, even plastic.
It seems we aren’t alone though as the average food waste for the United States, (the biggest offender in food waste in the world) is 35% to 40% of our food supply. Another astounding number! To break that down, the average American family of four tosses over 1,160 pounds of food a year — from scraps, spills and spoilage. That’s 1.2 million calories—enough to provide a starving child with a lot of food for a long time. Grandpa was right.
One may ask, “How is throwing out food all that bad? I mean doesn’t it decompose at the dump?” It turns out that landfills full of decomposing food release large amounts of methane gas, which is said to be 20 times more lethal of a greenhouse gas that carbon dioxide. And America’s landfills are full of rotting food, and therefore the single largest producer of methane emissions in the U.S. This is a major contributor to global climate change and reduction of our ozone layer.
Now that I’ve given you the bad news, let’s have some good news. We as individuals can implement small changes that make a big difference in the amount of food we throw away each year. Through a little effort and planning you too can make a big difference.
Of course, reducing food waste starts at home. Shop smart and try not to buy impulse buys as those are the most likely to land in the trash. Implement the “P” word, ya know planning, and make lists before you go shopping to get just what you need. For example, the food waste in most of Europe is low in comparison to the U.S. and U.K because they buy only the foods they need for the meal they are cooking that day. Try to buy only what you need, which is a novel idea here in America.
Another way to help reduce your families food waste is to monitor what ends up in the trash for a few weeks and then make a plan to plug that leak. If you find out you consistently let your salad greens go bad before you use them, buy less or get making more salads. It is also a good idea to go through your pantry and figure out what foods are going to expire soon and plan some meals around those. Use the same tool on your fridge and go through it once a week and discover the foods that are lurking in the back and create a meal around using them up. With the internet at our fingers, it’s easy to put in what ingredients you have and voila! A bunch of recipe ideas will turn up to stimulate your creativity.
I have found the very best way to reduce food waste is…. drum roll…. to compost. We have been composting for years and it really doesn’t take that much effort, particularly living here at the coast. We have a 5 gallon bucket, yes we do, in the kitchen and we fill it on a regular basis. Hunky hubby drags it back to our compost pile and dumps it, throws some mulch on it like twigs and grass clippings, then walks away. In time, it all breaks down and we have rich rewarding compost to spread around the place.
If you do not have a lot of space, it is still easy to compost with a little more planning. There are some pretty creative compost bins you can purchase or make that don’t take us that much space. There is lots of great information about composting on line but don’t let it overwhelm you, it isn’t rocket science and it is a great way to turn your waste to wanted rich dirt. (Particularly with our sandy soil!) Pick out a simple solution and go for it. It is so rewarding.
The important point in all of this is to do something about our food waste. It is a big dirty secret that needs our intentions and attention to change. In our abundant country it is easy to overlook this issue and turn the other way. I know Grandpa and all our ancestors would appreciate our effort now to care for our earth for generations to come by cleaning our food waste up.
It took a few years and some strategy to get to the first and most successful vanilla farm in the U.S. but I recently made it. Nestled in the verdant jungles of the Hamakua Coast on the Big Island of Hawaii where King Kamehameha once walked, this pioneer farm is an inspirational story of a dream made true. Of course there was lots of hard work and ingenuity to make this dream come true, but that’s what makes it such a groovy story. As we drove up the curvy jungle road to the farm, my tummy growled, I had been looking forward to this for a long time.
The “Hawaiian Vanilla Company” as it is called, serves a delicious “vanilla” luncheon with vanilla in every dish and drink and then an informational (and very entertaining) tour of the orchid farm itself. Jim Reddekopp, co-owner and “head bean” as he calls himself, seats everyone himself and brings them vanilla lemonade or tea, beaming with pride. His children (called the little beans) weave around the tables, helping out and bringing a homey feel to the function. As we dig into the delicious food, their story begins to unfold.
Jim and his wife Tracy Reddekopp hatched this concept during dinner, one fateful night. They had just purchased 10 acres on the big island to raise their 5 children and something else, but that something else hadn’t been made clear yet. Tracy’s mother, an orchid enthusiast, suggested they start a vanilla farm. After all it is the perfect warm climate for the humid loving vanilla orchid. Jim looked bemused as he shared with us. “Something about that idea just clicked in my brain. Little did I know what I was getting into.”
How lovely is that, to raise kids and vanilla orchids on the same land? A dreamy idea alright, but the doing part, not so dreamy. Vanilla is a mysterious finicky creature which was born in the jungles of Mexico and is the second most expensive spice (just under saffron) in the world. It is expensive because it is difficult to grow and pollinate. The flowers only open for a few hours and if you do not hand pollinate it in that time, you’re out of luck till it blooms again next year.
“Someday I’m going to write a book about growing vanilla” Jim Reddekopp told me as we toured his vanilla farm with a full vanilla filled tummy, “and it could be called, ‘Vanilla, the book of failures.’ I mean we had to start from scratch. When Tracy and I bought this land back in 1998, you couldn’t just google, ‘how to raise vanilla’ you had to figure it out.”
“I finally found one old Japanese guy, here on big island that had been researching and growing vanilla beans for over 25 years.” He smiled, amused, as he continued, “Mr Kadooka was my real-life Mr. Miyagi,” (the martial arts mentor in the Karate Kid movies) “He was my like my vanilla sensei and he would make me set there for HOURS until he gave me one nugget on how to grow vanilla.” Jim finished “What he was ultimately teaching me was patience and that is most important in growing vanilla and children.”
Back up at the bright yellow “Vanillary” which was an abandoned slaughter house they transformed into a light filled restaurant and store, Jim explained to us some of the culinary principals of vanilla. “The flavor of vanilla is lost in our mouth unless it is carried by a courier that delivers it to our taste buds. The three couriers are acid, (like citrus) fat (like cream and butter) and alcohol. Alcohol tears down the cell structure of the bean pod and seeds and takes the flavor from it all and makes extract.”
Jim went on, “Now to make your own vanilla extract is very easy, except you need patience. The way to make your own bottle of never ending vanilla extract is to take a 12 oz bottle and split your vanilla beans down the center, put them into the bottle and add your favorite alcohol.” (I use a leftover bottle like a salad dressing bottle)
He continued, “First time in doing it, we recommend you use vodka, as it is truly lets the flavor of the bean shine, but you can use whatever alcohol you like.” (I have used them all and I prefer good ole cheap whiskey. It makes the best vanilla extract hands down! And I don’t even like whiskey, so go figure.) Jim looked at us here and smiled wryly, “Here is where you need your patience, if you add one bean to the bottle it will take you and year and a half to get a good extract, 3 beans takes 6 months and 6 beans take 3 months, wait till you get that nice amber color.”
“Now this is your mother bottle, you never want to use it directly in cooking” he said shaking a bottle of vanilla extract at us, ”You take it out of the cupboard, fill another 3 oz bottle with 1/3 of the extract which you will use, then refill your mother bottle with the same alcohol and put back in the cupboard and put the date of the refill on it. The average baker goes through about 4 oz a year, and at this rate, if you use 3 vanilla beans, your mother bottle could last 12 or more years.”
This is such a better way of having vanilla extract! Not only is it cheaper but the store bought ones can have questionable ingredients, like “vanillin”. Vanillin which is the compound most present in vanilla pods, was created since real vanilla is so expensive. At first it was made innocently enough from wood, then modern science got ahold of it and now it is made from waste produced by the paper making industry. It is toxic and doesn’t contain the 249 other compounds in vanilla that form its complex flavor.
Jim finished up with us by saying, “When you make your vanilla extract, you are choosing to make an ingredient that you and your family will treasure and you are also supporting a small business with a big dream. Remember,” and he pointed to a sign hung in the window, “Dreams come a size too big so we can grow into them.” You can have this dream without all the hard work and patience by just making your own vanilla extract. Vanilla pods and lots of amazing vanilla products can be bought at Hawaiian Vanilla’s website. And hopefully someday you can make the pilgrimage out to visit this amazing place too.