Cooking With Vanilla

Hey folks, it’s the last weekend of the month so it’s time for another recipe. This one, however, is a little different to most.

It’s an adaptation of something I found in Janet Sawyer’s vanilla cookbook, kept mild and made vegetarian (vegan even) to suit the relatives I’m eating with. Yet, for those who do want it, I’ll be giving instructions on how to sub the meat back in.

The tofu may add texture to the dish and it’s an unusual but lovely vanilla curry either way but, for those who do eat it, chicken would most definitely help to bring the flavours together and give them a base on which to build.

Regardless of which version you choose to make, though, I’ve made a few other tweaks to ensure that you get the best possible flavour from the curry, while also highlighting a more interesting chilli.

For today’s dish, we’re going to be using the cherry bomb. A milder pepper than most of those I feature that has a rather berry-like sweetness to it, as well as picking up a bit of richness when dried.

It’s not as common as some of the other varieties we’ve worked with but it’s still a lot easier to get your hands on than the truly obscure strains I tend to use off record.

Cherry bombs can be purchased from several specialist retailers, including South Devon Chilli Farm and my mate Nigel at Yorkshire Chillies. But, if for some reason you really can’t find any, it is possible to make do with a teaspoon or two of the kashmiri powder from that raspberry pavlova I made.

Many other delicious peppers, however, like the orange copenhagen in my sweet linguine or the sugar rushes that I love to stuff, are completely impossible to buy. They can sadly only make it onto this site in the occasional bonus recipe or small aside like this, simply because I can’t afford to use up my monthly recipe spot on something that you can’t replicate at home.

Not unless you’ve spent months growing those particular peppers, that is.

There are so many types of chilli out there, including some of my absolute favourites, that can only really be found if you grow them yourself.

It’s rewarding but it’s a lot of work and would require you to know what I’m cooking at least four months in advance. Which just isn’t a reasonable thing to expect.

So it’s a good thing that today’s curry doesn’t want any of those anyway.

Now, let’s get back to the recipe at hand. Here’s what you’ll need for the spice mix:

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4 black peppercorns

4 cloves

1 star of anise

3 cardamom pods

2 dried cherry bomb chillies

½ teaspoon fennel seeds

½ teaspoon poppy seeds

¼ teaspoon ground turmeric

and a stick of cassia cinnamon

Which is, of course, the standard chinese type that you’ll see in supermarkets. I find it a little darker than the ceylon variety but, with the rest of this dish so light, I feel like that actually works for it.

Plus, why add more hard to find ingredients to the list if I don’t have to?

To make the mix, we’re going to heat up a pan and fry all but the turmeric dry. No oil.

Keep them moving around for a whole minute so that they get nice and toasty without anything burning, then grind them in a pestle and mortar or the dedicated coffee/spice grinder used for my mozzarella sticks. I told you we’d get more use out of that!

Add in that touch of turmeric and leave the blend in a small pot to cool. The spices are done.

Do note, though, that this makes enough mix to spice the dish three times.

For the rest, you will need:

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200g rice (I’d suggest a nice basmati, since you’ll actually taste it under this delicate curry)

1 large onion (or half of one as huge as you see here)

125g cashews

200ml coconut milk

200ml stock (chicken or veg)

180g fried tofu


1.5kg chicken

and some amount of vanilla. How much you’ll need depends on how you want to handle it.

Janet’s original recipe asks for a single pod to be split open and its seeds scraped out. Or, if you want something even more convenient, a teaspoon of her company’s vanilla paste.

That company being “littlePod”, by the way.

This, however, strikes me as a little weird and wasteful.

She states in her own book that “you can re-use a vanilla pod/bean (as long as it has not been split)” to flavour dishes again and again. A technique that my family have been using for decades but not one that I saw implemented in any of her recipes.

Sure, the seeds give more flavour per pod than a mere infusion but, when vanilla is currently at the most expensive it’s been in years, why use up one pod each meal when two will give you the same level of flavour way more than once if you don’t break them?

Unfortunately, though, you can’t just reuse something that’s been cooked with chicken. That would pose a serious food poisoning risk.

But if, like me, you’re using a stock cube or paste that needs boiling water added to it, that water will still be hot enough two minutes after its left the kettle. Use that time to infuse it with your vanilla and you won’t have to dirty the pods with anything else.

So, once you’ve prepared your stock and added your vanilla to it, in whatever way you chose, it’s time to prepare the rest.

First, place your cashews onto a baking tray and then under the grill until they just start to brown. Keep an eye on them, they go from just right to horribly burnt in next to no time.

Then, roughly break them apart when they’re cool enough to handle. Just halving or quartering each nut will suffice.

Next, chop your onion nice and fine to avoid any large slices in the finished dish but leave your tofu or chicken chunky. Just dice it roughly to give some good sized bites.

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Now heat a couple of tablespoons of vegetable oil in a pan and use it to sear your protein. That is, fry it for four or five minutes, until it too starts to brown on the surface. Then set it aside as we cook the rest.

It is important to note at this stage, however, that reheating chicken can result in all sorts of nasties growing in it. Make sure it stays warm throughout the next part.

Which is frying the onions.

If you’re cooking with tofu, you may have to add a little extra oil before you throw them in. It’s quite absorbent but it doesn’t always seem to take up enough to be a problem. I’ll leave the decision up to you, though.

Fairly soon, they should start turning translucent like so:

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At this point we add the spice mix. A tablespoon thereof because, while the book this recipe came from said a teaspoon, that wasn’t nearly enough to give flavour to my tofu version and I highly doubt it would stand up to the meat at all.

This is a delicate dish, even with the amount I’ve put in.

Coat your onions in the spices and cook for another two minutes to make sure the flavours really sink in, then it’s time to toss in our liquid.

Add both the vanilla infused stock that we prepared at the start and your coconut milk to the pan and heat until it’s simmering away.

And, at long last, we can put the chicken or tofu back in.

After that we can leave it to cook through for half an hour and give our rice the attention it deserves. Not that it needs much.

Simply put your 200g of rice in a saucepan with 400ml of water and boil with a lid on for twenty minutes.

With any luck, it and the curry will be done at the same time and you can simply stir in the cashews and serve them both.

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Perhaps even with a dash of coriander if you have any to hand.

And it makes enough for three or four.

In the end, it’s still significantly less saucy than the curries I’m used to, despite me upping the amount of liquid involved, but that’s partially the tofu’s fault, taking up the sauce to become soft and juicy.

And, with enough there to moisten the rice and provide the dish’s coconutty base, it’s certainly not a problem.

The vanilla isn’t powerful here but definitely lends its own little smoothness to that base and pairs well with the sweet, licoricey spice mix that gives the meal the top end of a



Pretty much the upper limit of what I would call “mild”, though it may have reached a low 2 by the second day.

It’s a tasty balance of flavours and one that I was happy to enjoy numerous times as I tweaked the recipe but it’s also a subtler one than most of what I eat. One that’s certainly worth a try, especially with the chicken, but likely to suit a more delicate palate than is usual among chilli fans. Despite my best efforts.

Perhaps this just wasn’t the cookbook for me.

2 thoughts on “Cooking With Vanilla

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