Bean Counter

I don’t know how and I don’t know why, but a few months ago I was invited to a liquor tasting. Although I do enjoy a nice gin and tonic — Hendrick’s with a muddled cucumber, thank you very much — I am really not much of a drinker, and especially not now with the reflux. But the sound of a night of free alcohol and free appetizers was too good to turn away, so on a random Tuesday night I found myself in a function room at the Hotel Commonwealth in Kenmore Square.

I honestly don’t remember names of any of the liquors I tried: I gave my card to a woman sampling a beet infused alcohol and talked tattoos with a man from a whiskey distillery in Brooklyn.  There were lamb sliders, and chicken wings the girl next to me described as “the best” she’d ever had, and there was a great cheese platter. If memory serves, it was from Formaggio Kitchen, and it had some really nice examples of American cheeses: Humboldt Fog goat, Maytag Blue – you get the picture, good cheese. Someone accidentally forgot to put spoons in the dishes for the local honey and candied nuts that were placed on the side of the cheese – and when I told this story later to Rich, he was a little embarrassed that I’d actually asked for them to track down the spoons. I personally think it would have been a shame if the food they’d meant to serve got tossed in a wastebasket at the end of the night, but that’s just me.

Now, there are two things common at these free events: attractive women doling out samples of the free product, and lots of fun swag given away that has been labeled with the name of their good.  The Icelandic vodka company had messenger bags; I scored a salmon pashmina (yes, pashmina!) scarf from the Italian orange-flavored liqueur. (I just want to make clear that I am not not saying the names of the alcohols because I don’t advertise products on Cheap Beets, but because I honestly don’t know what I was drinking that night.)

And then there was the vanilla-tinged scotch. I was schmoozing with the beautiful woman doling out samples when a couple of people approached the table and asked if they could help themselves to free t-shirts. “Of course!” she replied. “Help yourself.” Now, I hadn’t noticed the t-shirts on the table, but what I had noticed was the display the company had her set up. I was standing in front of a glass jar brimming, and I mean brimming, with whole vanilla beans. There must have been at least 50 standing in front of me, and so I asked her if maybe I could have a few of the beans. (Yes, Rich was even more mortified by this part of the story.) She was a bit surprised by the question – I guess she was more used to getting asked for her phone number than baking ingredients – and I explained that vanilla beans are quite expensive and her bosses might not be happy if they were to disappear. She winked and said she’d look the other away; I grabbed not one but two beans and tucked them in my purse.

I actually forgot about the beans until the next day, when I was waiting for the bus and kept thinking someone was smoking a pipe nearby. The beans rested by my phone, so I had a gorgeous sniff of vanilla every time I got a call. They were still in my purse when I had my class that night. I showed my booty to my classmate the professional baker Joyce (she of the fudge cookie fame). She examined them and gave a sniff, and announced they were actually very good quality. She told me I could wrap them in foil and freeze them until I found a use for them, but she also suggested I make my own extract by sticking them in a small glass jar of vodka and forgetting about them for six months.

But what, I implored, should I bake with them? “Oh no,” Joyce shook her head, “baking with vanilla beans is a waste.” She explained that the only time vanilla beans should be used is in cold dishes. In almost every instance that a baking recipe calls for fresh vanilla beans, a teaspoon or two of extract can be used instead. “But don’t use that chemically fake stuff they sell cheap the grocery store!” she warned. “Always look for real vanilla extract from places like Madagascar and Tahiti.” Joyce said she actually buys hers by the gallon, which fluctuates wildly in price; she’s bought it for a low of $75 to a high of $124. It all depends on the hurricanes and stormy weather. The past few years have been brutal on the baking industry due to the astronomic price of vanilla extract. Who knew?

So the recipe I have for today – creamy rice pudding – can be made with a fresh vanilla bean, but why waste it on something that’s been cooked in a crock pot for hours? This recipe takes leftover rice and makes it into a sweet and creamy dessert. Quick tip: You can freeze leftover rice (or quinoa); it defrosts and heats up in a breeze. I tossed in a few cardamom pods and a scrape of nutmeg — mild spices that won’t upset the reflux. I always have dried cherries in the house from Ocean State Job Lot, but you can replace their appearance with more golden raisins. If you do still insist on using a vanilla bean for your baking, they sell whole vanilla beans in the gourmet section of Home Goods for a few dollars less than you’d pay at the store. My friend Sara takes a note from Mark Bittman and buys hers in bulk off of Amazon. But really, just use the extract.

And one last thing before I get to the recipe: I had mentioned a few posts ago I had some exciting news about a project I was working on. Well, I am pleased to announce my new column “The Four Questions” on JewishBoston.com. Each week I’ll be asking a Jew around town doing interesting things four questions (Passover joke, get it?). In the next few weeks you’ll see interviews with the Globe’s advice columnist, a politico, an ethnomusicologist and a personal chef. Please feel free to drop me a line if you know someone I should be interviewing.

Crock Pot Rice Pudding

Ingredients

2 2/3 cups milk

2 eggs, beaten

4 whole cardamom pods

1 teaspoon vanilla

½ cinnamon stick

1/8 teaspoon fresh nutmeg

½ cup white sugar

½ cup brown sugar

1/3 cup golden raisins

1/3 cup dried cherries

2 cups cooked rice

Directions

Combine all ingredients except for the dried cherries and golden raisins in crockpot. Add rice. Stir.

Cook in crockpot on high for one hour, stirring intermittently. After one hour, add the dried fruit, turn crockpot to low and cook for one more hour, continuing to stir intermittently. Enjoy!

A Perfect Pear-ing

We had quite a busy Saturday this weekend, starting with a lovely afternoon on Cape Ann. I shared a hay bale and a microphone with some really remarkable women to discuss eating locally at the Rockport HarvestFest. While we were there, we enjoyed lots of local treats like maple-covered almonds, fresh corn chowder and homemade pumpkin whoopie pies.

Then we trucked it back to town for an evening of parties. First stop was our friends’ annual beer and cheese party. What started as a gathering of about two dozen enthusiastic beer geeks six years ago has blossomed into more than 75 people sharing their favorite pairings.

In keeping with the local spirit, we brought a 2-year aged cheddar from Shelburne Farms in Vermont. We paired it with two versions of a saison, a spicy Belgian-style farmhouse ale, by new local breweries: Mystic Brewery in Chelsea and Backlash Beer Co. in Holyoke. And although the most popular accoutrement at the party was a baby (another change over the six years), my special accompaniment was a pear chutney I churned up earlier this week. As I simmered my pears, I thought about how my attempt to prepare a locally sourced dish had ended up involving ground coriander from Asia and lemons from California. Of course, the vinegary relish is of Indian origin and is now the most popular condiment in the United Kingdom.

Me, Maggie Batista, and Jane Ward. Not pictured: Heather Atwood.

Our second party was a 30th birthday for a dear friend, and the chutney did double duty that night as a small gift for him. I had actually tagged this recipe last fall to use as little gifts for friends, but the season slipped by too fast for me. To make sure that doesn’t happen again, I have another half dozen pears resting on my dining room table, just waiting to spruce up anything from a serving of yogurt to accompanying a nice piece of fish.

Pear Chutney from Deborah Madison’s America: The Vegetarian Table (I know, I’ve become a little addicted to this cookbook.)

As Deborah writes, “chutneys are sweet and sours in a single jar. Firm but ripe fruits are the best to use – little Winter Nellis, Anjou, or Bartlett Pears that are a day shy of eating. Peaches and nectarines can also be used for this chutney.”

Ingredients

2 pounds firm pears

½ cup white sugar

1 cup apple cider vinegar

1 cup light brown sugar

½ cup golden raisins

Zest of 1 lemon

1 ½ teaspoons ground coriander

1 teaspoon minced garlic

½ cup peeled and diced or sliced fresh ginger

¾ cup finely chopped white onion

3 dried cayenne, árbol, or other slender dried hot chiles

10 whole cloves

Directions

Peel and core the pears and dice them into small pieces. Put them in a heavy saucepan with the white sugar and place over low heat. Cook until they’ve released quite a bit of juice, 10 to 15 minutes. Stir them a few times while they cook. Drain off the juice and set the pears and juice aside separately.

In a nonreactive pot, combine the remaining ingredients and bring to a boil. Add the reserved juice, lower the heat, and simmer until fine bubbles dot the surface, about 40 minutes. Add the reserved pears and cook over low heat until the pears are translucent and the sauce is quite reduced and thick, about 25 minutes more. Ladle into a clean jar, cover tightly and refrigerate. They are best served after sitting for at least a day and will keep for up to two months.