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Mark Bittman’s Minimalist Pantry Is Great…But What Happened to the Vanilla?

Vanilla beans from Madagascar infuse rice pudding and soft desserts with sweet, mellow flavor--but a cook's pantry also needs pure vanilla extract for baking.

Vanilla beans from Madagascar infuse rice pudding and soft desserts with sweet,
mellow flavor–but a cook’s pantry also needs pure vanilla extract for baking.

Yes, let’s get rid of bottled lemon juice–and say goodbye to packaged breadcrumbs, grated imitation “Parmesan” cheese, and dried parsley and basil.

I’m all for the ruthless pantry pruning Mark Bittman espouses in “Fresh Start for a New Year? Let’s Begin in the Kitchen,” (The New York Times, Wednesday, January 7, 2008, pp. D1 and D3).

But I do have quibbles about his spice advice.

Let’s definitely toss the imitation vanilla extract. Using the beans for flavoring rice pudding or ice cream is a lovely idea. But if you’re baking, you really do need high quality pure vanilla extract.

Right now I’m using up a quart jar of exquisite Mexican vanilla I bought at Vaya Gai-Mex, a small, family run company in Veracruz that has been growing vanilla and making liquid extract since 1873. The plump planifolia beans are harvested from vines entwined in sweet orange trees—is it any wonder that the aroma and flavor are intoxicating? I use Vaya Gai-Mex’s extract whenever I bake; it’s also delicious sprinkled over shrimp sauteed with jalapenos and garlic.

Not everyone can get to Veracruz, of course. But the pure vanilla from Nielsen Massey, readily available at Williams Sonoma, Amazon and many gourmet food stores, is excellent. Try a small bottle of their Mexican or Madagascar Bourbon extract and you’ll never go back to the fake stuff. Nielson Massey also makes vanilla powder and paste, but really, the sultry fragrance of true vanilla extract is one of the glories of the kitchen pantry.

(Note: Be careful when buying Mexican vanilla, especially in markets and roadside stalls, or on the web. Cheap extracts may be laced with coumarin, a powerful blood thinner that has a sweet aroma reminiscent of vanilla.)

Then there’s Bittman’s rule about tossing spices that are more than one year old.
Yes, ground spices should be tossed, maybe even after six months. But why are you buying them anyway? Invest in Krup’s inexpensive grinder, buy small quantities of whole spices, and grind them as you need them. Good web sources for fresh whole spices include Penzeys and Savory Spice Shop. They will never go stale because you’re using them up quickly.

What about tossing aging whole spices? I beg to dither. Just last night I found some Sichuan peppercorns from Goumanyat et Son Royaume in Paris lurking in the pantry, only half used, in their original jar. They are almost three years old, but throw them away? I don’t think so: When I unscrewed the lid, the pungent aroma nearly took my breath away. When I tasted a single peppercorn, it began to foam and fizz, exuding a delectable citrus flavor, turning my tongue numb in about 30 seconds. I used them in Fuschia Dunlop’s recipe for broccoli stir-fried with Sichuan peppercorns and dried red chilies–B and I licked the platter clean.

So here’s a better rule of thumb: Buy high quality, very fresh whole spices and grind them as you need them. Store them in tightly sealed jars in a cool, dark cabinet or pantry—do not display spices on your countertop, no matter how chic your spice rack is. Sniff the aroma whenever you open a jar—if it is vibrantly fragrant, go ahead and use the spice. Still, as Bittman advises, “if you get a whiff of dust or must before you smell the spice,” do throw them away.

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