Most people think of vanilla as a flavoring for pastries and ice cream. But many 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. The celebrated three-star French chef Michel Guerard has been known to add a few drops of vanilla to hollandaise sauce. 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.
Just as vanilla has the ability to bring out chocolate's sweetness without making it seem cloying, so does it have a remarkable way of bringing out the natural sweetness of savory dishes, especially seafood.
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.
Some people may be skeptical about adding vanilla to savory dishes. The following recipe, a specialty of the Carl Gustaf Hotel, is designed to make them believers. Save the vanilla pod for making flavored rum or sugar.
PATRICK GATEAU'S ROASTED SALMON WITH VANILLA SAUCE
4 (6-ounce) salmon fillets, with skin
Freshly ground pepper
2 teaspoons olive oil
1 pound spinach, stemmed and rinsed
Season salmon to taste with salt and pepper. Heat oil in non-stick oven-proof skillet and brown salmon pieces, skin side down, over high heat. Place skillet and fish in oven. Roast salmon at 400 degrees until cooked to taste, 10 minutes. To test for doneness, press fish with finger. It should break into flakes.
Steam spinach in steamer or in covered pot with small amount of water until tender, about 2 minutes. Drain and set aside.
To serve, arrange spinach in centers of 4 plates. Place 1 piece of fish on top. Spoon Vanilla Sauce around fish and serve at once. Makes 4 servings.
1 tablespoon butter
3 tablespoons minced shallots
3/4 cup dry white wine
3/4 cup fish stock or bottled clam juice
3/4 cup whipping cream
1 scant tablespoon honey
1 vanilla bean
Melt butter in saucepan. Add shallots and cook over medium heat until tender but not brown, about 3 minutes. Increase heat to high. Add wine and boil until about 1 tablespoon liquid remains. Add fish stock and boil until about 2 tablespoons liquid remain.
Whisk in cream and honey and bring sauce to boil. Cut vanilla bean in half lengthwise with paring knife. Scrape tiny seeds into sauce with tip of knife. Discard vanilla pod. Season sauce to taste with salt and pepper.