The vanilla bean is the fruit of a special orchid family of which there are thousands of varieties, but only one variety (vanilla plantifolia) bears anything edible. It is an expensive spice due to a labor-intensive and time-consuming process.
the maturing process
The vanilla orchid starts to flower around three years after planting. The flowers need to be pollinated so that the orchid can produce fruit, this is usually done by hand. The fruit which looks like a long green bean takes about two months to grow and a further eight months to mature before the green beans (also called a pod) are hand-picked for the next stage of the process. In order for the vanilla bean to develop its distinctive flavour and aroma, the hand-picked vanilla bean has to under go months of curing and drying before it can be used. By then the vanilla bean will have shrunk in size and have turned dark brown in colour. Cutting along the length of the vanilla bean reveals thousands of minute seeds which are used extensively in cooking. The three most common types are the Bourbon-Madagascar vanilla bean, Mexican vanilla bean and the Tahitian vanilla bean. Indonesia and India also grow orchids that produce vanilla beans.
I have a little stash of used glass bottles that I refuse to throw out because they look cute or I just like the shape (once they had some nice oils in them) and they look great when filled with your own infused oils. Most of these little bottles will hold about half or one cup of oil, so by infusing smaller amounts of oil at a time keeps everything tasting fresh. Putting the bottles into the dishwasher and running the hot cycle makes sure that they are really clean and sterilized before using.
“No”…my camera sensor does not need a cleaning…it’s the minute seeds of the vanilla bean floating in the olive oil.
How to make vanilla infused olive oil
Fill a small bottle ( mine was 1/2 cup) with a good quality olive oil which I prefer to use, extra virgin oil has a stronger taste which competes with the flavour of the vanilla.
Run the tip of a sharp knife down the length of the vanilla bean to reveal all those minute seeds and pop the whole vanilla bean (or cut in half to fit the bottle) into the glass bottle. Close and give the bottle a gentle shake which will release some of the seeds into the oil.
Store the bottle in a cool dark place for about a week to two weeks, (depends on the strength of the vanilla bean used) remembering to give the bottle a gentle shake every other day to help with the infusing process. Do taste the oil after a week or so and if you are happy with the flavour you can start using it. Remember…good things are worth waiting for!
This vanilla infused olive oil is a real store cupboard treat and one that I like to have a little supply at hand. The oil adds a hint of vanilla and sweetness to my finished dishes, for example…drizzled over some crostini with lemon ricotta or a seafood risotto are one of my many culinary uses.
Crostini means “little toasts” in Italian… so topping my “little toasts” with a creamy lemon ricotta cheese, adding a few twists of black pepper, some basil and adding a little sweetness with a drizzle of vanilla infused olive oil gives these “little toasts” a bit of panache.
1 stick of french bread cut into slices (1cm thick)
2 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced in half (optional)
freshly ground black pepper
a handful of fresh basil leaves, finely sliced
vanilla infused olive oil or plain olive oil
How to make:
Combine the ricotta cheese, garlic and lemon zest in a small bowl, season with sea salt to taste. This can be prepared some hours in advance and stored in the refrigerator until needed.
Preheat the grill to high and lightly toast french bread slices on both sides until golden brown. Rub the cut side of garlic over one side of each piece of toasted bread. When cooled spread the prepared ricotta cheese on top of each piece of crostini. Season with a few twists of black pepper, drizzle over some vanilla olive oil and scatter over fresh basil on top and serve.
Try using fresh mint instead of basil and drizzle some walnut oil over the crostini instead of vanilla oil for a different variation.
Ricotta is a soft creamy but slightly grainy cheese, white in colour with a hint of sweetness to its flavour. Ricotta means “recooked” and is derived from the fact that the cheese is made by heating the whey (a by-product of cheese making) from another cheese such as mozzarella. Ricotta is a versatile cheese and can be used in savoury and sweet dishes. This home-made version may not be authentically Italian, but is really delicious, easy to make and a great introduction to cheese making. Simple ingredients used and no specialized equipment needed. So before you reach for the tub of Ricotta give this recipe a try… you might get hooked!
Home-made Ricotta Cheese
500ml full-fat milk
250ml whipping cream
pinch of sea salt
1+1/2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
Useful Kitchen Jewellery:
How to make: Pour the milk and cream into a saucepan, add the sea salt. Over a medium heat and stirring with a wooden spoon bring the liquid to almost boiling point. Remove the saucepan from the heat and stir in the lemon juice. Almost immediately the liquid will begin to curdle, leave un-disturbed for 5 minutes.
If you are using cheesecloth instead of a straining bag make sure you have a piece large enough that you can double over if you need too, my straining bag has a very fine mesh so I found that worked for me. How quickly the whey drains from the curds depends on the weave in the cheesecloth, so keep that in mind. Good quality white kitchen paper towels (no coloured designs) could be used instead of the cheesecloth.
Place the sieve over a heat-proof bowl lined with the cheesecloth/straining bag and spoon the curdled liquid into the center.
I like to strain the cheese for about an hour, as the longer you leave the cheese to strain the firmer its consistency will be. If you prefer a softer cheese strain for a shorter time, the cheese will firm up more when refrigerated.
Once the whey has been drained from the curds, discard the whey (could be used in bread making) and place the Ricotta cheese into an airtight container and refrigerate until needed. The Ricotta cheese will keep for about 3 days. I sometimes double the recipe if I find that I need a larger quantity. This recipe will give you about one cup of Ricotta cheese.
for the crostini
I french stick of bread, cut into slices (1cm thick)
2 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced in half (optional)
How to make: Preheat the oven grill to high and lightly toast the french bread slices on each side. Rub the cut side of the garlic over one side of each piece of toasted bread. Spread the cooled slices of french bread with some Ricotta cheese and then garnish each slice with some prepared Gremolata and serve.