One of the earliest and most important lessons I learned as a home cook can be summed up with the old adage, “less is more”. When I was beginning to branch out from following recipes to the letter, I tried to make a “basic” marinara sauce of my own design. I was under the impression that in order for my sauce to be wonderful, it had to be complicated. I added so many different kinds of herbs that my sauce tasted less like carefully simmered tomatoes and more like something from the reject pile in an incense factory.
The great thing about failures is that they often come with valuable information, and my disappointing “thyme bomb” marinara was no exception. The experience taught me to focus less on quantity and more on quality. Today, I maintain my very best marinara is made from in-season tomatoes, a few cloves of really potent garlic, a pinch of salt and maybe a bay leaf.
I can’t think of a more pleasing example of the beauty of simplicity than this recipe for Coconut Vanilla Bean Sorbet. It has three ingredients that create a rich and indulgent dessert, complete with the exotic perfuminess of real vanilla. It’s essential to use real vanilla beans; vanilla extract just doesn’t come close to having the complexity of the flavor in good quality vanilla beans. (And the little black specks of vanilla bean in the white coconut cream are just so pretty.) I call this “sorbet”, because that’s technically its most accurate definition, but coconut milk yields a dessert that rivals the richness of most full-fat ice creams.
You can’t go wrong with the classic coconut-and-chocolate combination by dressing it in a coat of Magic Shell, but I love how a sprinkling of chopped salted almonds enhances the flavor and balances the sorbet’s richness.
Look for vanilla beans in jars along with other spices in grocery store aisles, or alongside dried specialty items like chili peppers and mushrooms.
I think this sorbet is perfect any time of year, but it’s especially appropriate this Valentine’s Day if you happen to have a dairy-free darling who deserves something decadent.
Coconut Vanilla-Bean Sorbet
makes about seven 1/2 cup servings
special equipment: automatic ice cream maker
2 cans (about 28 ounces total) unsweetened coconut milk (I use Thai Kitchen brand)
2/3 cup sugar
1 1/2 (that’s one and one-half) vanilla beans about 5-6 inches long
Prepare the vanilla beans by laying them flat on a cutting board. Use the tip of a knife to slice each bean open lengthwise, from top to bottom. Be careful to slice through one layer of the bean in order to open it, rather than slice all the way through and split it in half completely. Use your knife to peel back the bean’s skin, exposing the “paste” on the inside. Hold your knife perpendicular to the bean. Press gently and drag the knife down the length of the bean to collect the paste.
Empty the cans of coconut milk into a medium-sized saucepan. Turn heat to medium-low. The coconut milk will be separated into solids and a transparent liquid. Blend with a whisk or fork as the milk heats to recombine. Add the sugar. Scrape the contents of the vanilla bean into the mixture. (After I scrape out the beans’ paste into the coconut milk, I like to toss the bean itself into the mixture to squeeze out as much flavor as possible.)
Stir continuously to dissolve sugar and distribute the bean flecks. Continue to stir over the heat for about 5 minutes.
You can remove the vanilla bean husk and add the mixture to a ready ice cream maker as soon as it cools. However, if you’re not in a rush, I recommend giving the coconut mixture a few hours in the fridge (overnight is even better) to really let the vanilla flavors develop.
Once the mixture has been in the ice cream maker long enough to become firm and scoopable, stop churning. Remove the ice cream bowl from the rest of the machine and let the sorbet freeze a bit longer, for firmer scoops. Top with chocolate shell, chocolate shavings, or chopped, salted almonds.