Most people think of vanilla as a flavoring for pastries and ice cream. But smart cooks use vanilla beans in roasted lobster and even steep the fragrant pod in cocktails.
To a generation of North Americans brought up on vanilla wafers and vanilla custard, this use of a tropical flavoring in savory dishes may seem outlandish. But it's common practice among French chefs around the world. Patrick Gateau, chef of the Carl Gustaf Hotel in St. Barthelmey, French West Indies, scrapes the tiny black vanilla seeds into a dulcet sauce for salmon.
Vanilla is the fruit of a giant tropical orchid, a perennial vine that can grow to lengths of 350 feet. The edible part of the plant is a long, slender pod that contains millions of tiny black seeds. Native to the rain forests of southern Mexico and Central America, vanilla is one of the most important ingredients that the New World added to the global larder. (Other such foods include chocolate, chiles and tomatoes.) Today, the spice is cultivated throughout the tropics, from St. Lucia and Brazil to Madagascar, Java and Tahiti.
When the Spanish landed in Mexico, vanilla already enjoyed the status of a princely flavoring. It was a frequent flavoring in the frothy beverage chocolatl . The Aztecs called vanilla tlilxochitl . Our word comes from the Spanish vainilla , literally "little scabbard," an apt description of the bean's sword-like shape.
Unlike chiles and chocolate, which became immediate hits in Europe, vanilla took a while to catch on. For a century after its import to Spain, it was used almost exclusively as a flavoring for chocolate. It wasn't until 1602 that Queen Elizabeth I's apothecary, Hugh Morgan, suggested that vanilla could be used as a flavoring. The 18th-Century French found a curious use for the fragrant spice--they used it to scent tobacco.
Vanilla grows best on hot, humid mountainsides in the tropics. The beans ripen at different times, so each plant must be picked over repeatedly until all of its 40 to 50 pods reach the proper degree of maturity. At this stage, the pods will be yellow-green in color, four to 12 inches long and up to one inch in diameter.
Curiously, the vanilla bean has no flavor at this stage. The distinctive scent is acquired through a lengthy curing process. The traditional method calls for the pods to be dipped in water, baked in the sun, then swaddled in blankets to "sweat" and ferment overnight. Three weeks of this process, followed by several months of drying, reduces the bean to a slender, shriveled, dark-brown pod bursting with tropical fragrance and flavor.
One of the most important chemicals responsible for the bean's haunting aroma is vanillin, a compound that forms tiny white crystals on the pod's surface as the vanilla bean ferments. The French call these crystals givre (frost), and they are an important indicator of a high-quality vanilla bean.
Another sign of quality is length: The long, slender beans from Madagascar and Tahiti are considered superior to the short, stubby beans from the Caribbean. But fresh vanilla beans of any size will have more flavor than the bottled extract most of us grew up with.
Vanilla beans are generally sold by the piece in glass tubes or bottles. When buying them, seek out fat, flexible pods that feel heavy in your hand. Avoid dried-out or brittle beans. According to Gateau, the best vanilla comes from Taa in Tahiti.
Vanilla beans aren't inexpensive (I recently paid $3 for a bottle of two pods), but a little can be made to go a long way. To use a vanilla bean, cut it in half lengthwise with a sharp knife. Scrap the tiny black seeds with the point of the knife into the dish you're preparing. A half vanilla bean is sufficient to flavor two cups of custard, ice cream or applesauce. Place the bean in the milk over low heat and let it infuse for 20 minutes, then make your custard or ice cream.
The infused pod can be rinsed off, dried and placed in a jar of granulated or powdered sugar. In a few days, you'll have a wonderful vanilla-flavored sweetener. If you prefer the convenience of vanilla extract, you can make your own by steeping a few vanilla beans in a flask of vodka. Just store it away from light.
Vanilla has the ability to bring out chocolate's sweetness without making it seem cloying. The French like to pair vanilla with fruit, adding the perfumed pods to jams, compotes and applesauce. The most famous vanilla dessert is probably creme brulee, a silken custard invented at Cambridge University (where it was known as plain old "burnt cream") and recognizable by its telltale dotting of vanilla grains and caramelized sugar topping.
But desserts are only a starting point. Vanilla has a remarkable way of bringing out the natural sweetness of savory dishes, especially seafood. The celebrated French chef Michel Guerard has been known to add a few drops of vanilla to hollandaise sauce.