Cooking with Vanilla

From an orchid comes a bean with a rich, versatile flavor

| December/January 1995

Vanilla Recipes

Shrimp and Corn Bisque 
• Tarragon-Vanilla Salad Dressing 
• Pasta with Sauce ­Veracruz
• Roast Pork with ­Apricots, Prunes, and Vanilla
• Orange Butter Sauce with Vanilla and Orange Balsam Thyme 
• Pears Poached in Wine with Hazelnut-Gorgonzola Stuffing
• Thunder of Zeus 

Plain vanilla? Hardly! This beloved spice, with its rich, fruity, complex flavor, has soared in popularity in recent years among cooks who are discovering many culinary uses beyond ice cream, cookies, and cakes. Vanilla can add a wondrous “What is it?” flavor to many vegetables and entrées. When it takes a starring role in an unexpected dish, many cooks turn not to the bottle of extract in the cupboard, but rather to its source: the vanilla bean. If you’ve never used vanilla in this form, you’re in for a treat.

The vanilla bean used in cooking is the cured seedpod of Vanilla planifolia or V. tahitensis, two of the ninety species in this genus of rather nondescript, vining orchids. Although about twenty-five species yield beans for commerce, most of these are of lower quality.

The finest vanilla in the world, V. planifolia, comes from Mexico. When the Spanish conquistador Cortés arrived in Mexico, he found the Aztecs enjoying hot chocolate brewed with vanilla beans and stirred with a cinnamon stick. Mexican chocolate still is flavored with vanilla and cinnamon.

Although V. planifolia was transplanted to other parts of the tropics, the plants at first failed to bear fruit. In Mexico, the fragrant, pale yellow flowers are pollinated only by a tiny bee and certain species of hummingbirds. Lack of natural pollinators had caused the failure of these early attempts to establish plantings.

In 1840, an African worker on the French island of Bourbon (now called Réunion) in the Indian Ocean east of Madagascar devised a method of hand-pollinating vanilla flowers that is still used today. He inserted a small, pointed stick into a freshly opened flower. The pollen adhered to the stick and could then be transferred to the stigma. After fertilization, the vanilla bean develops quickly. “Bourbon” vanilla still signifies a vanilla of high quality.

Vanilla is now produced in several tropical countries. Madagascar is the leader —with about a million pounds of vanilla beans a year, while Mexico produces about a third as much. Good-quality, organically grown vanilla is currently being produced in Costa Rica, whereas that from Brazil and Venezuela is used primarily for scenting soaps and tobacco.

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