Neil Simon’s Felix Unger and Oscar Madison may be the ultimate “odd couple” in the theatrical world, but you’ll find that the culinary world has some unusual pairings of its own.
If you were dining at New York City’s Compass restaurant, you might order citrus-cured salmon and find it napped with a vanilla-orange sauce, and at Chicago’s Thyme restaurant, you would find lightly breaded shrimp with vanilla bean sauce on the menu.
If you were down in Miami, you would see chef-owner Allen Susser in his Aventura restaurant preparing scallops with saffron enhanced by vanilla. Unusual as it may be, this seemingly odd coupling of vanilla and savory dishes is not a wild contemporary craze. Mr. Susser first began using vanilla in unexpected dishes 10 years ago, when he incorporated it into a tropical fruit salsa.
“I used it with mango in a salsa for grilled red snapper,” he says. “To me, the mango had hints of vanilla, pineapple and peach in it. I wanted to enhance the vanilla while adding spice, heat and rum as other flavors in the salsa.”
He went on from this successful combination to others, discovering that vanilla “works very well with white meats. Basmati rice is great with cinnamon, cardamom and vanilla — finished with raisins and green onions.” Mr. Susser says he also has found shellfish and vanilla to be a natural combination in his Bahamian lobster and crab cake with vanilla beurre blanc.
“Vanilla seems to give a nice roundness to the flavors you are cooking,” Mr. Susser says. Others find that it adds a welcome rich undertone, a mellowness and depth, a balance to flavors and even a flavor contrast in dishes ranging from vegetables to fish.
Vanilla’s complex properties always have been celebrated in sweet finales, where it’s a staple. But it can also boost the flavor of savory foods. For Patricia Rain, author of “Vanilla Cookbook” (Celestial Arts), vanilla first occurred as a flavor enhancer one day when she was preparing chicken with tarragon and tossed a split vanilla bean into the creamy wine sauce. Not only was the kitchen fragrant with the simmering dish, but the end product was sublime.
The power of vanilla in savory dishes is not just an American phenomenon. It is celebrated in other cuisines worldwide.
“Danes roast geese with a basting of rhubarb and applesauce fully flavored with vanilla. In Provence, quenelles de brochet of ground pike are flavored with orange peel and a hint of vanilla,” Miss Rain says. Others have discovered the aromatic flavoring used in eggplant puree in Turkey and simmering shellfish soup in the Netherlands.
Even in ancient times, this seductive flavoring was never considered ordinary, but was noted for its marked distinctiveness. The Aztecs regarded vanilla as a gift from the gods. At one point in history, vanilla was considered so precious that it was reserved solely for use by royalty. It also was thought of as an aphrodisiac and forbidden to young people.
That’s pretty provocative stuff for an amber liquid in a little brown bottle or a shriveled 10-inch-long vanilla bean. Still, it attests to the extraordinary power of vanilla.
The production of vanilla has all the sizzling elements you might expect to see in a thriller novel. It has villains, counterfeiters, piracy and exotic locales.
The process of making it is very time-consuming. From planting to market can take five to six years. It is one of the most labor-intensive agricultural products in the world.
Vanilla comes from the orchid family and is the fruit of that climbing tropical beauty, the flamboyant, greenish-yellow Vanilla planifolia. Though the plant originated in Mexico, today it is grown in Tahiti, Madagascar, Central and South America, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and other tropical regions.
Out of more than 20,000 varieties of orchids, this is the only one that produces an edible fruit — the vanilla bean — and this comes only after the plant is 4 or 5 years old.
Another difficulty is that orchid blooms must be hand-pollinated by workers, who work feverishly because the flowers bloom only one day a year.
After the plump pod is harvested, it must be transformed into a dry but aromatic vanilla bean — and therein lies the secret to its flavor. The fermentation and curing process is what develops vanillin, the primary flavor of vanilla.
To accomplish this, the pods are plunged into large vats of hot water and drained, and then they have to be handled every day for about six months, for during the day they are spread out on racks under a hot sun.
They are then wrapped in blankets and placed in wooden boxes to sweat by night. This process reduces the moisture content and turns the beans their characteristic dark brown color.
The beans are then sorted, graded, bundled and shipped. Short or split beans are used to make vanilla extract. This is done by chopping the beans, macerating them in a water-alcohol solution and then aging them to create the fragrant liquid.
What about the villains? Because of poverty in countries where many vanilla plantations are located, the beans are considered valuable and so are at risk for kidnapping.
The counterfeiters come in the form of unscrupulous growers who sprinkle a white powder over inferior vanilla beans so they will resemble the superior beans, which have vanillin “frost” crystals on the outside.
The recipes that follow will help you begin your own foray into this flavor. Or you could start by adding some vanilla extract to the mayonnaise dressing for crab meat or lobster salad. Or add a 2-inch split vanilla bean to the poaching liquid for lobster or a sauce for scallops. Or add some to the cooking liquid of peas, baby carrots or beets toward the end of simmering.
Remember to store vanilla beans and extract in airtight containers in a cool, dry place. Do not refrigerate. Mr. Susser’s preference is the whole bean when possible, and he cites the differences. The bean “has more aromatic qualities when roasting with chicken, pork, seafood and fish. The extract is simpler to fold into a sauce, but the whole-bean reduction works great with wine sauces and cream sauces, though for a salsa it may be easier to just splash in a little extract.”
Whole vanilla beans can be used in two ways: Either split down the center with the seeds scraped out and added directly to the food or with the whole bean added to flavor sauces or other mixtures. The bean can then be rinsed, dried well and reused, although each use will reduce the flavor.
Use pure vanilla extract rather than imitation vanilla because the latter may have an artificial aroma and unpleasant or harsh aftertaste. Pure vanilla may be twice as expensive, but usually only half the amount is needed and, more important, its quality of flavor can’t be matched.
m To avoid dissipation of flavor, add extract to cooked mixtures after they have been cooked.
⅓ cup olive oil
3 tablespoons white wine vinegar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon dried tarragon
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
½ teaspoon sugar
Salad greens and fruit of choice
In medium bowl, combine oil, vinegar, vanilla, tarragon, salt, pepper and sugar. Mix well. Chill before using with salad greens and fruit of your choice. Makes 4 servings.
Mango, vanilla and rum salsa
2 large ripe mangoes, peeled, seeded and cut into small cubes
1 large ripe papaya, peeled, seeds discarded and pulp cut into small cubes
1 medium red bell pepper, diced
1 medium red onion, diced
1 medium jalapeno chili, finely diced
¼ bunch cilantro leaves, chopped
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon vanilla
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons dark rum
Juice of 1 lime
In large stainless steel bowl, combine mango, papaya, red bell pepper, onion, jalapeno and cilantro. In separate bowl, mix together cumin, salt, vanilla, oil, rum and lime juice. Combine dressing with mango mixture and mix gently. Cover and refrigerate 1 hour before serving. Makes 6 servings.
Vanilla beurre blanc (recipe follows), optional
2 teaspoons fennel seed
1 teaspoon dill weed
1 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
2 tablespoons olive, oil
2 pounds grouper fillets
2 tablespoons dry white wine
Prepare vanilla beurre blanc, set aside and keep warm. In an ungreased skillet set over medium heat, toast fennel seed 1 to 2 minutes or until aromatic. Remove from skillet. Finely crush toasted seeds using mortar and pestle, spice mill, clean coffee grinder or rolling pin. Mix with dill, thyme, salt and pepper.
Rub spice mixture evenly on both sides of grouper fillets. Drizzle with 1 tablespoon oil. Heat remaining 1 tablespoon oil in large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add fillets and saute 4 to 5 minutes on each side or until done and lightly browned. Add wine to pan and cook, stirring, 1 minute longer. Remove grouper and any juices in pan to serving plate and serve with vanilla beurre blanc, if desired. Makes 8 servings.
VANILLA BEURRE BLANC:
½ cup unsalted cold butter, cut into 8 pieces
2 large shallots, finely chopped (about ¼ cup)
1 cup dry white wine
1 tablespoon champagne vinegar
4 teaspoons vanilla
¼ teaspoon sweet paprika
¼ teaspoon salt
In 2-quart saucepan, melt 1 tablespoon butter over medium heat. Add shallots and saute 5 minutes or until soft. Add wine, vinegar, vanilla, paprika and salt and bring to boil. Reduce to simmer and cook until liquid is reduced by half, about 15 minutes. Gradually whisk in remaining butter, 1 tablespoon at a time.
Butter must melt gradually to form a creamy sauce. If necessary, remove pan from heat to keep it from getting too hot. Continue whisking in butter until well blended. If desired, strain through a fine sieve. Keep warm until ready to serve. Makes about 8 tablespoons.
Honey-vanilla-glazed pork tenderloin
2 1-pound pork tenderloins
¼ cup honey
2 tablespoons vinegar
1 teaspoon vanilla
½ teaspoon paprika
¼ teaspoon dry ground mustard
⅛ teaspoon ground black pepper
¼ teaspoon salt
Place pork tenderloins on rack in baking pan. Mix together honey, vinegar, vanilla, paprika, dry mustard, pepper and salt.
Brush meat with glaze. Roast pork in 375-degree oven for 45 minutes or until it reaches an internal temperature of 160 degrees on an instant-read thermometer, brushing with glaze every 10 to 15 minutes. Slice meat and serve. Makes 8 servings.
Vanilla-scented butternut squash risotto
¼ cup thinly sliced scallions or finely chopped shallots
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1½ cups arborio rice
5 cups chicken or vegetable broth
3½ cups peeled and cubed butternut squash
½ cup chopped parsley
2 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon vanilla
½ cup freshly grated Parmesan or Romano cheese
Salt, freshly ground black pepper
In heavy-bottomed pan, cook scallions in oil over low heat until lightly golden, about 5 minutes. Add rice and stir several times to coat with oil. Increase heat to medium-high. Add a ladle of broth, stirring constantly to keep rice from sticking to bottom or sides of pan.
When broth has been absorbed, add another ladleful of broth, the squash and parsley. Stirring constantly to keep rice from sticking, add remaining broth, a ladleful at a time. Rice is done when it is firm but tender. Remove from heat.
Add butter, vanilla, cheese, salt to taste and a liberal amount of black pepper. Stir quickly and thoroughly to combine ingredients. Makes 4 to 6 servings.