Cooking in the Tropics with Vanilla
Vanilla used as an adjective is defined by Webster as “lacking distinction, plain, ordinary, conventional.” Strange, because vanilla beans are anything but bland. Scientists have identified over 200 aroma compounds in each pod, giving vanilla its complex aroma and flavor. The sensual aroma of vanilla has been considered an aphrodisiac for centuries, and men are particularly attracted to its odor. Vanilla beans are not very “vanilla.”
The Aztec name for vanilla is tlilxochitl or “black flower” because the pod shrivels and turns dark after it is picked. Yet in the U.S. vernacular, “vanilla” is a synonym for “white” just as “chocolate” is for “black.” Vanilla is one of the world´s most expensive spices, and the vanilla extract sold in stores is usually made from an essential oil from cloves, or from synthetic vanillin flavoring. Only 2.4% of a natural vanilla pod is vanillin. Unless you are buying 100% pure vanilla extract or cooking with vanilla seeds, you have not really experienced vanilla´s true nature.
Vanilla comes from the dried fruit of the vanilla planifolia plant – the only orchid to produce an edible fruit. Vanilla is native to the eastern coastal and mountainous region of Mexico surrounding Veracruz and was first cultivated by the Totonac people. The Totonac did not eat the fruit, but used it in religious rites and as a perfume and medicine. The Totonac were conquered by the Aztecs in the 15th century and it was the Aztecs who found a culinary use for the pod, adding vanilla to cacao to make the drink chocolatl. (Contemporary Totonacs claim that not only did they give the Aztecs vanilla, they also were the original builders of Teotihuacan, one of the most significant architectural sites in Mesoamerica and sacred to the Aztec people.)
Chocalatl was originally made with corn and chilies, as well as chocolate and vanilla. The Aztecs served Cortez chocolatl in a goblet, and he was so impressed with the taste that he brought both vanilla and cacao back with him to Spain. The chocolate drink became a favorite of rich people throughout Europe. A recipe for a chocolate drink was included in the book, Curioso Tratado de la Naturaleza y Calidad de Chocolate, published in Spain in 1631 by the doctor Antonio Colmenero de Ledesma: “Take one hundred cacao beans, two chilies, a handful of anise seeds and two of vanilla (two pulverized Alexandrian roses can be substituted), two drams of cinnamon, one dozen almonds and the same amount of hazelnuts, half a pound of white sugar and enough annatto to give some color. And there you have the king of chocolates.”
Chocolate and vanilla, now considered opposites, were once married. In fact, vanilla was not liberated from its role as a chocolate enhancer until the beginning of the 17th century when it came into its own as a flavoring. Because it was so expensive and grew only in the Americas, vanilla was a flavor enjoyed only by the rich. The French, who were the first to appreciate vanilla’s possibilities, decided to try to cultivate the orchid in their tropical island colonies. Early efforts failed because the only natural pollinator of the flower was a bee found only in tropical America. In 1841, Edmond Albius, a 12-year-old slave on the island of Reunion, found a way to hand pollinate the vanilla orchid. After this discovery, vanilla flourished in places like Mauritius and Madagascar, Tahiti and the Reunion Islands. Today Madagascar is the world´s biggest exporter of vanilla and Indonesia is the second largest producer.
Bake something with vanilla, and your house will soon be redolent with aromas. I´ve heard that realtors suggest baking some vanilla cookies to lure in prospective buyers. But on a plantation, surrounded by vanilla, one can´t detect that characteristic scent. Only after the pod has been picked and cured for three months do the aromas develop. If the curing is not done under optimal conditions, if it is too dry or too humid or done too quickly, then the aromas will not develop to their full potential.
WHOLE BEAN VERSUS VANILLA EXTRACT
Vanilla extract has a long shelf life and can actually improve with age, peaking at two years. It is less costly than vanilla beans and a better choice when you need a background vanilla flavor. Most desserts call for vanilla extract. 1 tsp of vanilla extract is a good substitute for one vanilla bean.
Whole beans are a special ingredient. Vanilla ice cream made from vanilla pods contains flecks of the vanilla seeds. Crème Brulee made from vanilla pods is a revelation. The best vanilla pods are dark and plump and flexible, not stiff and rigid. To use the bean, simply slit it down its length with a small paring knife and scrape the seeds out of the pod. Beans can be kept for up to 9 months in an airtight container stored in a cool place, but never in the refrigerator. Vanilla beans that have become hard due to excessive moisture loss can be rehydrated by soaking them in warm water for several hours before use.
Though the pods are more expensive than the extract, they can be reused. For a subtle vanilla flavor, add a whole bean to your milk, tea or butter. Remove the bean from the sauce when it cools, rinse it off and let it dry for a few days, then store it in an airtight container for future use. Or add the pod to your sugar bowl to add flavor to the sugar.
We have been selling pure vanilla extract and whole vanilla beans from Villa Vanilla near Quepos. Though most cooks are familiar with the extract and have often used it in baking, many people have asked what to do with the whole beans. A little research on the World Wide Web produced some great ideas for using vanilla. Check out www.arizonavanilla.com for a wide variety of recipes both sweet and savory. And here are a few more ideas for how to use vanilla to enhance some of your favorite dishes:
I liked their recipe for vanilla scented olive oil:
2 cups olive oil/vegetable oil
2 sprig fresh rosemary
4 leaves fresh basil
4 leaves fresh sage
4 sprigs fresh thyme
1 dried hot pepper
1 Tahitian vanilla bean
Heat the oil in a medium pot at medium temp. Cut the vanilla bean in half and scrape out the seeds. Whisk the seeds into the oil along with the pod. Add fresh herbs and cook until the herbs turn golden brown, about 5 minutes. Remove oil from heat and let cool to room temperature. Stir the oil, then strain out the solids and store in an airtight container in a cool dark place (like the fridge).
WHOLE ROAST CHICKEN
Mix the seeds from a vanilla bean with salt and pepper and season the chicken breast. Put the pod in the cavity along with one head of garlic, cut in half and 5 sprigs of thyme. Truss the chicken and bake in a 450-degree oven for one hour or until an instant-read thermometer inserted into its thigh reads 155 degrees.
DRY RUB FOR PORK CHOPS
Add the seeds from one vanilla bean to a dry rub of 1 teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon sweet paprika, 1 tablespoon brown sugar, and small pinches of black pepper, dried thyme, cinnamon, cloves, and allspice or white pepper. Rub all over pork chops and grill or pan fry.
VANILLA BUERRE BLANC FOR LOBSTER
Melt two tablespoons of butter and sauté 4 tablespoons of shallots over medium heat until the shallots are translucent (2 to 3 minutes). Add one cup of dry white wine (or 1 cup of brut champagne) to the pan, and the seeds scraped from one vanilla pod. Whisk to evenly distribute the seeds. Reduce the heat and simmer for about 10 minutes, until you have about ¼ cup of liquid. Add 4 tablespoons of soft butter one tablespoon at a time to the simmering liquid, whisking constantly until all the butter is incorporated and the sauce is glistening and smooth. Season with ¼ t salt and freshly ground pepper. Warm the sauce before serving as a dip for grilled roasted or sautéed lobster. Or use as a sauce for lobster ravioli.
Christina Spilsbury and Rick Macsherry have lived in Tamarindo since 1989. They own and operate Sunset Catering.