by Kate Heyhoe
When it comes to vanilla, most of us think ice cream or sweets. But many chefs use vanilla as a secret ingredient in savory dishes, from lobster to salads (especially arugula). Only a tiny touch of pure vanilla extract or vanilla beans imparts mellowness and a background note to non-sweet dishes. Don't add so much that the dish tastes like vanilla, but do incorporate just enough to marry the other flavors. Used judiciously, vanilla rounds out a recipe, and adds a subtly rich mouth-feel, especially to cream soups, mayonnaise, and sauces. It's the perfect quick and easy touch to enliven a special Mother's Day meal or springtime celebration.
According to the folks at McCormick, the first use of vanilla dates back to Mexico, where the Aztecs used it to create a drink called Xoco-lall, made from cocoa and vanilla beans. Cortez is credited with bringing vanilla back to Spain and soon, its use spread to other parts of Europe. Today, vanilla beans from Madagascar are the gold standard to which all others are compared. Madagascar produces the majority of the world's vanilla; however, vanilla is also grown in such tropical climates as Indonesia, Mexico, Uganda, Tonga, and Comoros.
The vanilla plant, Vanilla planifolia, is a slender, green-stemmed creeping or climbing perennial of the orchid family. Cultivating vanilla beans is a lengthy and labor-intensive process, as each flower must be hand pollinated to ensure it produces a bean. To complicate matters, a flower only lives for one day. Its beans grow to between 6 and 10 inches long and resemble a green string bean. Knowing the vanilla products to which we're accustomed, it's hard to believe that freshly harvested vanilla beans have no flavor or aroma. To develop their signature flavor, the beans must endure an elaborate, three- to four-month curing and sun drying process. Once this is complete, the beans are graded and bundled to ship to the United States.
When the beans arrive in the United States, they are either packaged as vanilla beans, or used to create the amber liquid known as the magic spoonful—pure vanilla extract. They are chopped and percolated in large stainless steel containers, much like coffee percolators. The vanilla extract is aged to perfection before it is bottled and sent to the grocery store.
Spring and Mother's Day are the perfect times to savor the comforting flavor of vanilla. Whether sweet, savory or a combination of the two, vanilla adds warm undertones to meals and conjures up fond memories. The following are a few no-cook recipes for inspired vanilla-laced meals.
Kate's Global Kitchen for May 2003:
5/02/03 Spicing Up Cinco de Mayo
5/09/03 For Mom, a Bouquet of Vanilla
5/16/03 An Army Moves on Its Stomach
5/23/03 Burger Building—for Fun or Profit
5/30/03 Mint, Mint, and More Mint
Copyright © 2003, Kate Heyhoe. All rights reserved.
This page created May 2003
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