Thursday, August 25, 2011

Spice Girls

One of the things Andrew really misses is vanilla extract. I've found vanilla essence and vanilla paste, but he claims that only extract will do. The first week that the kids were in school, my friend and fellow Austinite, Sally, invited me to join her exploring the Tropical Spice Garden. Ah, the perfect place to pick up some vanilla beans to make my own extract. After dropping off the kids, I ran into my new friend, Meredith, and convinced her to come along.

Yoga Spice, Nice Spice and Mommy Spice

Back in the States, one of my favorite catalogs and stores is Penzey's Spices. They have an amazing selection and an encyclopedic listing of all the varieties of various spices and herbs. Sometimes, they'll have pictures from around the world of the plants being grown and harvested. Well, strolling through the Tropical Spice Garden felt like walking into the pages of a Penzeys catalog. If you're a fan of The Amazing Race, you may recognize this as the place where they had the tea challenge last spring.

When we arrived at the gardens, they spritzed us with a little citronella oil to help ward off the hungry mosquitos that roam the jungle. And aren't we in luck? They happen to sell it at the gift shop, too. The guide led our little group through the wooded paths, stopping often to educate us about the spice plants surrounding us. He'd pick leaves for us to nibble on such as the sweet tasting Stevia plant and hold up various nuts and tubers while explaining their culinary and medicinal uses. We even saw the betel nut tree that gave Penang its name.

Ceylon Cinnamon

Here's the bark of a Ceylon Cinnamon tree. Shhh... don't tell it that, thanks to Penzeys, I've figured out that I actually prefer Vietnamese Cinnamon.

Botany Quiz: Can you identify this plant?

Vanilla! I was actually a little bummed that it wasn't in bloom, and I couldn't witness the bean growing on this large orchid plant.

I just love how these leaves are waiting to unfurl.

And I'm always a sucker for water lilies.

At the end of our tour, we made our way to the gift shop. Apothecary jars and bins filled with spices and herbs surrounded us. There were also a number of gorgeous handicrafts and cookbooks. I may return to buy some gifts before I travel back stateside. I purchased some vanilla beans, but alas, they were grown in Bali instead of in the garden we had just visited.

On my future To-Do list: Take one of the cooking classes and enjoy a relaxing meal at The Tree Monkey restaurant adjoining the gardens.

Vanilla Extract Recipe roughly based on Martha Stewart's version
1. Go to tropical island and purchase Vanilla Beans plus some vaguely Russian sounding vodka. I used 4 vanilla beans for a 350 ml bottle.

2. Split beans and put into bottle.

3. Download either The Car's "Shake it Up" or Metro Station's "Shake It" to your iPod and ...

4. Store it in a dark place for 2 months, shaking it weekly, and voila Vanilla Extract.

This post is part of Foodie Tuesday on Inside Journeys. Check it out for more delicious inspiration.


  1. Wouldn't it be quicker to have someone in the states send you a bottle of vanilla extract?

  2. Isn't that called Vanilla Vodka? ;-) Sounds like a wonderful day at the gardens. I would have loved that!

  3. My favorite placing for vanilla is Mexico! Hope yours smells and tastes just as good!

  4. I didn't recognize the vanilla either. Plants never look like what we think, right?
    Thanks for linking up this week, Spice Girl!

  5. This sounds like a place I'd love too, thanks for describing all the palnts you saw. Is that really how ou make vanilla extract? I'm with Mary above who describes it as vanilla vodka!!! Either way I bet it smells and tastes devine.


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