Question: A few months ago I bought some vanilla in Mexico. I stopped using it when a friend told me that Mexican vanilla can be toxic. Is this true? The vanilla was such a great buy for a quart size that I couldn't resist buying it.
When using Mexican vanilla, should it be used in different quantities from what is called for in recipes?
Answer: Indeed, Mexican vanilla is a great deal cheaper than the leading brand in this country, but only if it is the imitation product. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration warns that the long-term effect of ingesting imitation Mexican vanilla is toxic. The product contains coumarin, which has been banned by the FDA for about 31 years as a food additive. In the early 1950s, researchers found that coumarin caused liver damage when fed to rats.
According to Juan San Mames, owner of Vanilla Imports in San Francisco, although only experts can tell the presence of coumarin through smell and color, there are easy indications to pinpoint imitation vanilla that contains the filler substance:
"Cost is indicative," he said. "Imitation vanilla costs about $1.99 a quart, whereas true vanilla costs as high as $2.25 for an ounce here. When the label is in Spanish, it's imitation. If the product is FDA regulated, the label has to be in English and its content specified. Pure vanilla extract uses 35% alcohol and 13.35 to 15 ounces vanilla bean per gallon of liquid."
Coumarin is a dark substance produced by the tonka bean, indigenous to Mexico and a member of the pea family. Genuine vanilla beans from Mexico are produced from delicate orchid flowers, which are naturally pollinated (using melipona bees and hummingbirds) and hand pollinated. The rarity of the plant and the intricate process of cultivating, curing and drying make the price of the true vanilla bean and its extracts expensive.
Tainted samples were found in the following brands of Mexican vanilla: Molina, Exotle, Chila, Tropical, La Vencedora, Premier, Tropical World and Paisa.
To answer the second question about the amount to be used in recipes when using Mexican vanilla: If you do have the genuine Mexican vanilla, you should use less of it than the recipe calls for because it is stronger than the regularly available vanilla.
Q: I have two types of grape plants: the sweet green seedless and red seedless. Besides eating out of hand and making raisins, are there other ways to use the fruits?
I tried to make syrup and poured it over the grapes but the taste was not great. Any suggestions will be tried and appreciated.
A: Grapes can be served a number of ways. Try them in salads, using either tangy oil and vinegar dressing with ham or chicken, or a sour cream-type dressing in a fruit salad such as a Waldorf recipe. Have a grape cocktail with diced avocado and French dressing on butter lettuce. Or use halved or whole seedless grapes in a gelatin mold.
For a quick dessert, try grape brulee by placing grapes in a shallow baking dish and covering with sour cream. Sprinkle all over with brown sugar and broil until cream and sugar become bubbly. Or dip clusters in melted chocolate and let set for a delicious snack or dessert.
When dipping grapes in hot sugar syrup (cooked to the hard-crack stage), add cinnamon, cloves or cardamom to flavor the syrup. Instead of pineapple, use grapes in upside down cake recipes, arranging grapes, cut side up, over nuts.
Grapes go well with chicken. Add them to any saucy chicken recipe about 15 minutes before serving or just long enough to heat them through. Or include them in a chicken filling for crepes. Last, but not least, is the ever popular idea of using them in jams and jellies. Check canning books for recipes.
Address questions on food preparation to You Asked About, Food Section, The Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053. Personal replies cannot be given.