Vanilla Bean Paste

Back in Toronto I had a favourite vanilla bean supplier.  The Spice Trader on Queen Street West sells vanilla beans from several countries in addition to the other fabulous herbs and spices available.  My relationship with The Spice Trader started when Mr416expat and I got married.  When we got married we weren’t able to take a honeymoon, so instead decided to each buy one thing for our new house that we would both enjoy.  Mr416expat bought an iPod dock and I, I found The Spice Trader.  I bought a bunch of new spices and never looked back!  The Spice Trader is my absolute favourite spot in Toronto to find different herbs and spices and I can’t wait to go back in June and stock up for another year in London!

As I’ve now been in London for 7 months my stash of ingredients brought from Toronto has dwindled and although I can’t wait to stock up in Toronto, there are some things I can’t do without until that happens.  Vanilla fits in that category.  I love ‘fresh’ vanilla beans and in their absence, (they’re ridiculously expensive in London) I sought out an alternative.

Tonight at Waitrose I found my alternative…or at least, a contender…

Vanilla Bean Paste

Vanilla bean paste?  Curious.  My favourite thing about vanilla (in addition to its delicious flavour) are the tiny seeds that show up as tiny flecks.  My vanilla bean scones wouldn’t be quite so neat without those little flavour flecks!

Now, after seeing this post on thekitchn today, I did for a moment, question whether this was a legitimate ingredient to bring into my kitchen.  Ultimately though, I really like vanilla and would rather have it in my life in paste form, than not at all.  We’ll see if the flavour in the paste can compare to the flavour from a regular vanilla bean!

My goal for the week is to try the vanilla bean paste in substitution for my Neilsen-Massey vanilla extract in some of my favourite recipes.  I’ll keep you posted!

Plum Clafoutis

What’s easier than making a rhubarb crisp you ask?  Possibly a clafoutis.  A funny baked custardy dish that is both simple and familiar, a clafoutis makes use of whatever summer fruits and berries you have on hand.  I know what you’re thinking.  It’s barely Spring and here she goes talking about summer fruits and berries.  This weekend I went to Broadway market and came away with three plums.  Although I’m not entirely sure where plums would come from this time of year, I knew they would be right at home in a clafoutis.

after placing the plums cut side down in the dish, pour the batter over top

Golden goodness...the plums become very sweet and pick up the vanilla bean

The sugar you sprinkle on after baking for 30 minutes makes a crusty top

Plum Clafoutis – adapted from David Lebovitz Plum and Raspberry Clafoutis from The Sweet Life in Paris

4 tbsp butter, melted
3 firm, ripe plums
3 eggs
1/2 c flour
1 vanilla bean (or 1 tsp vanilla extract)
1/2 c sugar (plus 2 tbsp)
1 1/3 c milk

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees.  Wash the plums, cut in half, removing the pit, and place cut side down in the baking dish.  Whisk the eggs until smooth.  Whisk the butter and flour into the eggs until smooth.  Add the seeds from the vanilla bean (or the extract).  Whisk in 1/2 c of sugar and then the milk.  Pour the custard mixture over the fruit.  Bake in the oven for 30 minutes.  After 30 minutes, sprinkle the remaining 2 tbsp of sugar over the top.  Bake for another 30 minutes until the custard is slightly firm and the top is a beautiful golden brown.

Enjoy immediately (the leftovers aren’t half bad though)

Scalloped Potatoes or Potato Leek Gratin

We didn’t eat scalloped potatoes very often when I was growing up.  Scalloped potatoes typically made an appearance at family pot lucks and Christmas dinner.  I never particularly minded them to be honest.  This week’s New York Times featured a recipe they called Potato Leek Gratin.  I made it up for dinner on Saturday night and it was good.  Really good.  The leftovers were even better.  It was the kind of dish I might even make the day ahead of time so all the flavours have a chance to get to know one another.  Here’s the rub.  Halfway through assembling the gratin, I realized, this dish is basically scalloped potatoes.  I have never made scalloped potatoes, but I suspect it’s a lot like this recipe.  What do you think?

Looks a lot like scalloped potatoes...doesn't it?

Cooking down the leeks

Cream, nutmeg, etc...

Leeks topping the potatoes...making it fancy

Cheese generously topping the leeks and potatoes

So much flavour going on...very hot..make sure you let it cool slightly

Potato Leek Gratin/Fancy Scalloped Potatoes – adapted from the New York Times, Melissa Clark

2 tbsp butter
2 large leeks, trimmed, halved length wise and washed
1 1/2 lb peeled potatoes, approximately 3 fist sized potatoes
salt and pepper
1 tsp dried thyme
1 c cream
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
1 bay leaf
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
3/4 c Gruyere cheese, grated

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.  Butter your gratin dish.  I don’t have a gratin dish so used my le creuset and it was just dandy.  Slice the leeks thinly.  Using a mandoline (or a sharp knife) slice the potatoes into 1/8″ rounds.  Toss with salt and pepper and layer in the gratin dish.  Melt the butter in a large pan over medium heat.  Add the leeks, season with salt and pepper.  Add the thyme.  Cook together until the leeks are lightly golden and soft.  Spread the leeks over the potatoes.  Add the cream, garlic, and bay leaf to the now empty pot that held the leeks.  Bring it to a simmer, scraping the bottom of the pot to release all the brown bits off the bottom.  Simmer gently for 5 minutes.  Add the nutmeg.  Pour over the leeks and potatoes.  Top with Gruyere.  Cover with foil (or the lid of your le creuset) and baked for 40 minutes.  After 40 minutes, uncover and bake for an additional 15-20 minutes.  Let cool for a few minutes before serving.

Gotta love Islington

While maxin’ and relaxin’ today, your author was heard to exclaim how much better our corner of London is, than the London portrayed in movies (usually by Hugh Grant or some other ponce).  Islington is short on old money pretensions, and long on youngish hippish types in bars and cafes along Upper Street.  Highlights:

Papaya and Hoisin Braised Ribs

Yet another victory for my le creuset.  This dish is fantastic.  You should make it tonight.  End of story.

This is another dish from a cooking class I attended at the Calphalon Culinary Centre.  Entitled Winterdelicious, this class was not hands on, but instead, had the participants watching, recipes in hand while the chef performed the demonstration at the front.  I’ve said it before, but cooking classes are a lot of fun, they’re an opportunity to leave new skills and to pick up a few new ideas and flavours for your kitchen at home.

Season the ribs with salt and pepper...be generous!

Sweat the onions, then add the garlic

Check out that papaya! Let it all cook together

Papaya and Hoisin Braised Pork Ribs with Sweet Potato Mash and Green Beans

Papaya and Hoisin Braised Ribs – adapted from the Calphalon Culinary Centre, Toronto

2 tbsp olive oil
ribs, cut into 3 rib portions
1/2 c hoisin sauce
1/4 c soy sauce
6 c chicken or beef stock
3 tbsp tomato paste
1 onion, diced
5 cloves garlic, chopped
2 bay leaves
1 papaya, peeled, seeded and diced
salt and pepper to season

Heat the olive oil in a dutch oven over medium high heat.  While the olive oil is warming season the ribs with salt and pepper.  When hot, sear the ribs and set the ribs aside.  Add the onions to the dutch oven and cook until translucent.  Add the garlic, cook for 1 minute  Add the tomato paste, stirring well.  Add the ribs to the dutch oven and turn to coat with the tomato mixture.  Add the remaining ingredients, bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer, cover and allow to cook for 2 hours or until the meat easily pulls away from the bone.  Remove the ribs from the dish to a plate and cover to keep warm.  Turn up the heat to medium high and reduce the sauce in the dutch oven until thick. Remove the bay leaves.  Puree the sauce and serve with the ribs.  Serve with sweet potato mash and crusty bread.

Weekends in London…

Might be a lot like weekends in Toronto.  We haven’t had any trips since early February and have gotten into a bit of a routine.

Wake up and hop on a bus

Head to the West End early to avoid the crowds and run some errands at Liberty

Head to the East End, taking in some weird gas storage tanks and make your way to Broadway Market

Pick up some fresh vegetables, pasta, and meat at the market

Grab some takeaway for lunch from a market vendor

or, if you're like me, a cupcake instead (this one's grape flavoured!)

Head to Violet, a yummy cafe, for hot chocolate and a pastry (if you haven't already had a cupcake or two)

Or to Tina We Salute You, a great coffee shop that cries for Tyrone W to visit

Sometimes you encounter random people in fancy carriages (this was the mayor or some of his peeps...no royalty this time)

Wrap things up on Brick Lane at Aladin, an Indian restaurant with a wild atmosphere

I’ve been in London for six months now.  It doesn’t seem like it’s been all that long, and I’m surprised (and thankful) to have so many local haunts.  I’m looking forward to showing some very special guests around some of favourites later this month!