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Highlights from the General Topics and Cookware boards. Food trends, food products, and burning questions.

The Many Lives of a Vanilla Bean

Vanilla beans are expensive, but you can reuse a single pod and still extract lots of flavor. Here’s the proper sequence to make the most of the declining results:

First use:
Scrape out the beans for a potent wallop of vanilla.

Second use:
Steep the seedless pod in a liquid (e.g., milk for ice cream for custard, juice or wine for poaching fruit). Then rinse thoroughly and let dry on a countertop.

Third use:
“Store” the pod for a while to produce a subtle hint of vanilla: in your sugar jar to make vanilla sugar (perfect for baking or sprinkling); in a bottle of maple syrup; in your vanilla extract (to pump up its flavor); or in a mason jar of bourbon, brandy, or rum (the more pods the better) to create your own homemade vanilla “extract.”

Board Links: Use or toss this used vanilla bean?

The Iceman Cometh

Well, that’s settled: The best way to have lots of good-tasting ice is to buy it by the bag. If you have the freezer space, keep a spare bag for iced drink emergencies. Keep the rest in a covered container, or in large ziplocs.

Making your own ice using filtered water (like Brita) may help the taste, but there’s always the risk of it picking up off flavors during the freezing process, from other items in the freezer.

Janet says an ice-making refrigerator is worth the money. Maytag has a model with a water filter in it that really makes a difference.

Board Links: Buying bags of ice

Best, Tightest Clips for Bags ‘O Chips (And Other Stuff)

Closing opened bags of chips, cereal, and crackers extra-tight is of paramount importance to those who value crispness. The problem is that most so-called “chip clips” sold in the supermarket really don’t do the job.

Many Chowhounds head to the office supply store for large binder clips, which are “super strong, super cheap, and they look decent,” says Dommy. They come in handy for all sorts of kitchen uses (tightly sealing milk cartons to preserves freshness, folding and closing plastic packages of beans, rice, pasta, etc.). You can clip a “freeze date” note to packages in the freezer (val anne c).

Others rely on old-fashioned clothes pins–either the standard or French types–to clamp bags shut.

Swedish-made Twixit! clips are hinged plastic clips that come in various sizes. They clamp tight and create an airtight seal on bags, ranging from chips to bread, to frozen fruits and veggies, standing in for twist-ties as well as chip clips. They’re microwave and dishwasher safe. Caitlin McGrath is lost without them. Order a set of 27 Twixit! clips online.

Board Links: any good chip clips?

Chow 101: Vinegar

There’s a range of vinegar out there. Hounds survey the options.

Rice vinegar, made from fermented rice, is mild and slightly sweet. It’s used a lot in Asian cooking.

Balsamic vinegars can be exquisite (and exquisitely expensive). The fancy ones are aged for years in barrels, and are syrupy and sweet. Industrial balsamics are good all-purpose, dark-colored vinegars.

Minus 8 vinegar is made in Canada from grapes picked at -8 degrees centigrade. It’s expensive and hard to find. You can sip this stuff alone like an aperitif, but it’s good with foie gras, and fruit. You’ll find some recipes on their web site.
Champagne, sherry, and red or white wine vinegars are very nice.

Look for “verjus”, a sour liquid made from unripe fruit (mainly grapes). It comes in red or white, and is used like vinegar. It’s light and has the advantage of not clashing with wine (as vinegars do).

Asian markets are a good source of inexpensive vinegars. Try a brown rice vinegar or one of the red vinegars. liu says they all have different personalities.

A few drops of a light vinegar will bring out the flavor of a good olive oil, notes Richard.

Board Links: Balsamic Vinegar

The Perfect Lemon and Lime Squeezer

You must buy yourself a hand-held enameled cast aluminum citrus squeezer, say hounds. These things are quick, efficient, handy, inexpensive…everything you’d want from a kitchen gadget.

Here’s how they work: there’s a cup into which you fit a half lemon or lime, and two long handles which push together with a lever action, pressing a reamer down on the fruit and literally turning it inside out, extracting every bit of juice, while leaving seeds and pulp behind.

These gizmos are sold in color-coded sizes (i.e., a small green ones for limes, larger yellow for lemons), but chowhounds overwhelmingly agree that the yellow version is all that’s needed for both fruits (indeed, some limes are too big to fit the lime-sized squeezer).

They’re sold at many cookware and housewares stores for around $11-13. Mexican grocers often sell less-expensive, non-enameled versions.

Link to buy.

Board Links: Cast iron citrus squeezer -do they work?

Orange Flower Water

Orange flower water is an intoxicatingly aromatic infusion of–you guessed it–orange blossoms in water. It’s produced largely in Lebanon and France. Used judiciously, it adds a wonderful je ne sais quois to food and drinks. Here are some ideas for how to use it.

Try adding a little orange blossom water to your favorite iced tea, for a lovely aroma, suggests Jupiter. Jim Leff notes that orange blossoms are an essential ingredient in Moroccan-style mint tea.

Marsha shares her recipe for a version of Ramos Gin Fizz with orange flower water: For 2 drinks, mix 1.5 oz fresh lemon juice, 2 tsp powdered sugar, and 2 tsp bar sugar well in a shaker. Add cracked ice, and the following, in this order: 3 oz gin, 1 egg white, 4 oz milk, and 10-12 drops orange flower water. Shake very thoroughly, and serve in fizz glasses.

Orange flower water goes wonderfully with fresh fruit. Splash a little on a citrus salad (along with some fresh mint), or add to simple syrup for drizzling over fruit.

Orange flower water also lends a subtle, haunting flavor to custards–try adding a couple teaspoons to ice cream, panna cotta, or rice pudding recipes.

In baking, orange flower water is especially good added to the syrup for baklava (Jupiter); and in brownies with orange zest and cinnamon (eaters will never guess the “mystery” ingredient, says Fleur).

Claudia Roden’s “The New Book of Middle Eastern Food,” includes a wonderfully refreshing salad of green lettuce and sliced oranges, simply dressed with olive oil, fresh-squeezed orange and lemon juices, and a bit of orange flower water.

Orange flower water can often be found at specialty and Middle Eastern groceries, or order online.

Board Links: Orange Blossom Water

Herb Butters

Herb butters are great for flavoring vegetables, fish, meats, summer corn–anything that might be enhanced by a pat of butter and some fresh herbs or garlic–in other words, most everything!

Preparation is as simple as mixing softened butter with a bit of minced fresh herb leaves and chilling (or forming into a log, wrapping well, and freezing, so you can slice off a pat or two whenever you want). You can use a single herb–tarragon, rosemary, thyme, parsley, etc., depending on what you’ll be serving it with–or combine two or three. Here are some variations.

Garlic paste is a great addition, but be sure to use a light hand, says rtmonty.

Lemon butter (use the zest and some juice), lemon garlic butter, or lemon garlic parsley butter (julieswan).

Mrs. Dash (an herbal salt-free seasoning) whipped into soft butter. Note: this needs to “age” a bit, says LisaAZ.

Shallots, fresh lemon juice, and parsley make a very traditional combo. If you want to deemphasize the shallot flavor, mince and soak in wine vinegar for 15 minutes, then rinse and let dry on paper towels before incorporating (Karl S).

rtmonty also likes to add few anchovy fillets along with one of the herbs.

Board Links: Herb butters–need your suggestions

Brandied Sour Cherries, for Superior Cocktail Garnishes and More

Homemade brandied sour cherries are a mega-step up from commercial maraschino cherries as a garnish for cocktails. They’re also wonderful in their own right as as topping for ice cream and other desserts. And if you steep with good brandy, you’re left with wonderful cherry brandy (as a byproduct!)

It’s a simple process. Here are some methods:

Use pitted or unpitted sour cherries. If you do pit, retain some pits to add to the brandy (they add a lot of additional flavor). Leave the cherries whole with stems–they’re very pretty for garnishing drinks.

For each pound of sour cherries, use 2 cups of brandy and 3/4 cup of sugar. Mix in quart jar and hold for one month in a cool pantry before using. Store in the refrigerator after the first month (JudiAU).

Some prefer to steep in maraschino liqueur, a not-too-sweet liqueur made from Dalmation marasca cherries (Stock and Luxardo are two widely available brands). Whether using brandy or maraschino, sugar isn’t necessary; just pack a sterilized jar with cherries, cover with brandy or liqueur, and place in a cool, dark place for a month or so. After opening, store in the refrigerator.

While using fresh sour cherries is preferable, their season is short, and they’re not available everywhere. Dried sour cherries plump up nicely in brandy, and still beat chemical-laden commercial maraschino cherries every time (MC Slim JB).

Board Links: Brandied Sour Cherries
Anyone starting any summer time liqueurs and cordials?

Trader Joe’s Canned Smoked Trout

We don’t want to start a run on your TJ’s store, but word has it that this product is being discontinued. The can contains a nice portion for one person. The trout is packed in Canola oil, and very tasty. Some stores still have a supply on the shelves.

Board Links: Trader Joes discountinued its canned smoked trout:(–anyone else sell this?

Jarred Vodka Sauce

Vodka sauce is delicious over any pasta. And there are are some decent-tasting jarred brands–which can be made even better by adding crushed red pepper, some crab meat, or sauteed prosciutto. Here are some good brands:

Patsy’s Vodka Sauce.

Rao’s is a popular but pricey choice.

Trader Joe’s Organic Vodka Sauce is a delicious low-cost alternative.

Cento is made with San Marzano tomatoes (very good, plus not as high calorie as some other brands).

Victoria brand, from Brooklyn, costs $6.99 a jar and is better than Rao’s, says emdb. Find it at Big Y stores and Stop & Shops in the northeast.

Board Links: Recommendations…jarred vodka sauce