Monthly Archives: January 2013

Vanilla Catastrophe

I like to think of myself not exactly as a foodie but as someone who is really interested in cooking. I enjoy cooking for people. I read cookbooks like novels. I’ve collected dozens of cookbooks. Some rarely get used, and that’s okay. Having them on my kitchen shelves comforts me—until it’s time to dust. Only during that annual event do I weakly contemplate donating a few of the less interesting ones.

So last year when I discovered homemade vanilla extract, I knew I wanted to bake with my own vanilla. In October, I ordered a kit that included everything but the vodka. When the clear bottle and five vanilla beans arrived in my mailbox, I was ready with the full bottle of vodka that had moved with us from Charlotte to Pittsburgh to Smithfield over a period of twenty-four years.

I split the beans, stuffed them into the bottle, and poured in about eight ounces of vodka. I closed the rubber stopper and pushed the wire holder in place to seal in the goodness. Every few days, I’d gaze at the brew, shake it a few times, and dream of the delicious cookies we’d make with this real vanilla created with my own hands.

Finally, in early December, we were ready to make our twelve different kinds of Christmas cookies, and the bottle of amber colored liquid stood ready in the pantry. I’d carefully measure the desired amount needed for a recipe, and at the end of the baking session, I’d pour in more vodka. I trusted that I’d never run out of vanilla again. Perpetual vanilla.

I’m sure I didn’t imagine that the cookies tasted better this year than ever before. I enjoyed the compliments. I enjoyed my mother’s appropriate surprise and pride as she examined the bottle, and I felt a little tingle when she exclaimed, “Our people used to make their own vanilla! Granny Lane’s sister used to.” She would be my great-great aunt. Cool.

And then—this morning.

I baked a strawberry cheesecake for my sons. I baked a Swedish Nut Cake for a Bible study. I’d just replenished the bottle with three teaspoons of vodka and was pushing the wire clamp back down to seal it, when the unthinkable happened.

The bottle slipped from my hands and shattered all over my granite counter top. I froze. Visions of all the goodies I’d thought about baking this year evaporated as the precious liquid dotted with tiny flakes of real vanilla beans spread over the counter’s edge and dripped onto my floor. Several minutes passed before I could move. In fact, my husband, recognizing my shock, started cleaning the mess first.

The upside to this fiasco is that I have some twenty-four-year-old vodka left and the beans, too. When Kevin returns with a new bottle, I can start all over again.

Oh, and my kitchen smells wonderful.

FYI-my homemade vanilla extract infusion kit came from


Confession (#1?)

Confessions are in the news lately. I have one, too. Here it is: I love my crock pot. I cook in it maybe once a week sometimes. Here’s another part of the confession: whenever the recipe calls for browning the meat first, I rebel and refuse to do it.

The beauty of cooking in a crock pot is the dumping all the ingredients in, closing the lid, and turning it on. Why add steps and dirty pans? I know, I know. The recipes explain that browning seals in the flavor and makes the meat look more appetizing. My answer to that is if the meat cooks all day, it’s going to acquire the flavor as well as the color of the marinade.

I have another confession regarding the crock pot: in crazy moments of wanting to purge my refrigerator of all the bottles of sauces and dressings less than half full, I’ve poured three or four or five partially empty bottles over chicken breasts and let the dish cook all day. My sons and husband have loved the outcome and eaten every bit. Granted, they’re not a hard crowd to please. As long as I have meat on the table (served with cheesy anything–even better), I receive rave reviews.

My cousin who has authored several cook books, publishes a local food magazine, and has even styled food in New York City might stop coming to my house for family reunions if he found out how I treat a nice sirloin tip roast. Sorry, Freddie. The crock pot method works for us.

I know how to follow a recipe, and I’m not intimidated by a long list of ingredients, but when I’ve got two hungry teenagers to feed at the end of a busy day, the crock pot is my go-to appliance.

Here’s a great recipe that makes about 10 servings. It’s easy to double or triple, too.

Barbeque Beef

2 1/2 pounds sirloin tip roast
1/2 cup chopped onion 2 cups ketchup
1 clove minced garlic 1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce
1/4 cup brown sugar 1 teaspoon dry mustard

Place roast in crock pot. Combine remaining ingredients and pour over roast. Cook on low for 6 to 8 hours. Shred with forks. Serve on hamburger buns with cole slaw if desired.

January Mourning #2 (For Claney)

Our first dog, Claney, died last Monday night. He’d been sick for several weeks. We’d given him bottles of medicine and enjoyed the fleeting glimpses of improvement we thought we saw—until last Sunday when we found him in a patch of trees near our pond. No one said the words out loud, but our faces showed the same question. Are we losing him?

My Wilmington aunt had brought him to us. After practicing with four ducks—Dickey, Davey, Dobby, and Polly Ann (P.A. for short) and two cats—Lucy and Desi, who had six toes on his front paws, we thought we might be ready to graduate to canines.

My aunt rescues animals. Claney must have heard about her reputation because he limped up to her yard with an injured hind leg and a heavy chain around his neck. Her vet estimated his age at about six months. She nursed him, then brought him to us.

He was a mix of Black Lab and maybe Great Dane. We’re not certain. We are certain that he was a big dog. He weighed about 110 pounds and stood probably two and a half feet high, but that doesn’t tell the real story of his height. He could stand with his front paws on my six foot tall sons and look them in the eye.
His teeth stretched far back into the massive head, and his growl vibrated from somewhere deep inside his lean, mean body. Cat lovers who misunderstood him have called him Cujo, referencing Stephen King’s novel about a rabid dog.

The UPS and FedEx drivers hated him because he kicked into full-on protector mode whenever they had to deliver a package here, hence the rednecky plastic box with the hand-lettered sign at the top of our long driveway. We placed the drop-off box there to save the drivers from Claney’s massive jaw and us from a lawsuit.

Despite his sometimes aggressive traits, he had a mushy heart concerning baby animals. He loved kittens and puppies. He indulged them while they crawled all over his body and nipped at his ears.

He’d give us hugs by leaning his body against our thighs. He was a magnificent animal.

Our vet hooked him up to some IVs and kept him overnight. Last Tuesday morning, Dr. Ward found that he’d slipped away from us.

I loved him since he slinked out of my aunt’s car with his tail between his legs. We love him still. We miss you, Claney.


January Mourning

This past Sunday was a miserable day. Normally, I enjoy a gray, cool day. It’s an excuse to drink hot tea and day dream that I’m back in Ireland. As a farmer’s daughter, I welcome the rain, too, especially since our latest drought continues to grip our farm with dusty fingers.

No, the weather wasn’t the real reason for the misery. It simply added melodrama to the overall pall on the day.

My great aunt, Myra Jean, died last week one day after her 85th birthday. She was my across-the-road neighbor for about six of the eight years we’ve lived here. She moved into a care facility when her frequent falls threatened her fragile bones. Aunt Myra Jean had been a single parent to her three children since 1966, and she lived a long and happy life with four grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. She was gentle and soft-spoken and an asset to our community and family.

Her Sunday afternoon funeral was held at Old Union Primitive Baptist Church on the Smithfield Goldsboro Road, near Princeton. This one-room, white, clapboard church has weathered at least one century and maybe even several more decades if a story told about it is true. I’ve heard that when the northern troops marched through Johnston County during the Civil War, the soldiers relented from burning Old Union because of its name. (FYI, Primitive Baptists do have music, just no instruments. The choir chanted acappella hymns.)

Scenes from one of the few times I’d attended that church played in my mind on Sunday. My Aunt Jackie was eulogized there when I was six. She had just turned twenty in July, had planned her wedding for October, but died in a one-car crash in August. I have many memories about that funeral, but that’s a post for a different day.

While we watched the parking ushers under their big, black umbrellas direct the cars on the wet grass, our thoughts were with our dog, Claney. He’d been sick for about two months, and we’d been giving him big doses of medicine hidden in spoonfuls of cat food. When he wasn’t on his bed Sunday morning, I was mildly concerned. When he still wasn’t in our garage after church, we knew we needed to look for him. My husband found him in a group of trees by our pond.

His breathing was labored, and he was listless. We took his bed to him, whispered loving words, and covered him with on old bed spread. We expected to find him gone after returning from the funeral.
Instead, he hung on while we tried to keep him comfortable.

So we said goodbye to Aunt Myra Jean, tended Claney, forcing thoughts of a death watch out of our minds, and drove Hattie back to college on a misty, cold Sunday afternoon. A miserable day to be sure.

The next post is for Claney.