The meaning behind South of Vanilla and an easy Thanksgiving Recipe You Won't Be able to Resist

Over the years, I’ve gotten several questions of where and how I learned how to cook, and the answers usually tend to surprise people.

First, my mom is a terrible cook. I mean that in the nicest way possible, and she is the first to admit it, which is why I don’t feel quite so bad announcing this statement to the general public. She just really is. She never liked cooking, and she never found joy in it the way so many others do. Now, there are a few dishes that she gets right, mainly the one I am sharing with you today, but for the most part, cooking just isn’t her thing.

What my mom is fantastic at, however, is baking. I learned how to bake from her, and I grew up alongside her on weekends baking everything from chocolate chip cookies to blueberry muffins to marshmallow-topped brownies. We baked so much that baking for me became natural, and by the time I was 10, I didn’t need to measure ingredients. I could eyeball the difference between a tablespoon and a teaspoon, a half-cup and a quarter cup. I knew when something was done baking, not by the timer, but by the type of smell coming from the oven. My mom used, without fail, more vanilla than what any recipe called for, and we went through bottles of vanilla so rapidly, that we often bought 3 bottles at a time from the grocery store. Vanilla was such an important part of my memories from learning to bake, that it became rooted in the title of the blog: South of Vanilla.

In a stark contrast, my dad was an incredible cook. I learned how to cook both through my paternal grandmother and my dad. My dad grew up with his mom in the kitchen, which is how he learned many of the things he knows today. To this day, my Grandma, who has sadly now passed, and my dad are two of the best cooks I know; the two of them have prepared some of the best meals I have ever had, which says quite a lot considering my extensive traveling and my healthy appetite for frequenting restaurants. My Grandmother grew up in the south, and her cooking reflected that sweet southern charm. She made grits like no one else I knew, and her meals were exquisite works of art that took hours to prepare. She wasn’t afraid of butter, and it was through her that I learned that a properly placed tablespoon of bacon fat could transform a whole dish. During my visits with her in Georgia, I would often watch her cook and try to figure out what the magic was behind her meals. A whole lot of it was love, but she was truly a very talented cook that took great joy and serenity through those hours in the kitchen. I would like to say that I get that same peace through her.  I credit my love and ability to cook to my dad and grandma: their southern style of cooking influenced the first part of my blog title: South of Vanilla.

In wasn’t until college when I realized that all of those hours spent watching my dad and my grandma in the kitchen had somehow, by osmosis perhaps, stuck with me. In high school I habitually burned anything from toast to mac and cheese, but I like to think that I just never really cared that much, as is the story with so many teenagers. There was a moment, while in college at Iowa, where my roommate was sick, so I made her homemade chicken and rice soup with homemade chicken stock. I had saved the carcass and bones from a chicken, and when asked how I did this, how I knew to do this, and which recipe I followed, I realized that my answer of “I don’t know, I just knew”, was atypical; most young adults away from home for the first time know nothing about cooking from scratch.

My mom, however, was able to cook several dishes extraordinarily well. This recipe that I share with you now is a twist on her original recipe: I’ve modified it to make it paleo, and have also added star anise, which I think is a nice seasonal flavor that is widely underutilized. I hope you make this recipe with love, and think of my family while you serve it to yours on this Thanksgiving.


Paleo Lemon-Anise Cranberry Sauce

Makes about 1 1/2 cups sauce

  • ¾ cup freshly pressed orange juice
  • 12 oz. fresh cranberries
  • ¼ cup raw honey
  • Zest from 1 large lemon
  • 3-4 star anises
  • 1/3 cup water
  1. In a large pan, combine orange juice, cranberries, honey, lemon zest, and star anise. Turn on high heat until mixture is slightly bubbling, then after 4 minutes while stirring frequently, reduce to low heat and let simmer.
  2. Let mixture simmer for about 30 minutes longer, stirring occasionally, and watching to ensure that cranberry sauce does not burn or stick to the bottom of the pan.
  3. When most of the thin liquid is no longer visible in the cranberry sauce, when the sauce is thick (after about 30 minutes), add water and stir.
  4. Continue to simmer for about 20 more minutes.
  5. Remove from heat and let cool. Sauce will jelly as it cools.
  6. Remove all star anise from sauce before serving.
  7. Serve or store in an airtight container int he fridge.