- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Vanilla can be sultry, rich, creamy, spicy, flowery and fruity. Part of its charm is that you’re not aware of its flavor, but of the other ingredients, according to Craig Nielsen, chief executive of Nielsen-Massey Vanillas Inc., in Waukegan, Ill. What you taste depends on the origin of the extract. The company, which recently celebrated its 100th anniversary, produces extracts from vanilla beans grown in Mexico, Tahiti, Madagascar and Indonesia.

Indonesian vanilla is used industrially, not by home cooks, because its flavor is inferior, according to Mr. Nielsen. The other extracts are available and can be used for their distinctive qualities.

Madagascar bourbon vanilla has “very deep, rich, creamy notes,” Mr. Nielsen says.

Mexican is a little spicier, with hints of clove and nutmeg, and Tahitian is very flowery and fruity.

“Put [Tahitian vanilla] in ice cream, and it tastes lightly of cherry. You’re not reminded of vanilla,” Mr. Nielsen says.

Although the accents Mr. Nielsen describes seem most appropriate for desserts, they enhance non-sweets as well.

“Vanilla is used to enhance other flavors. That carries over into savory aspects, especially when you’re layering flavors in a dish,” he says.

For example, add vanilla extract to a chili recipe, and you’ll cut the acidity of the tomatoes while highlighting the flavor of the chilies, according to the vanilla expert, who recommends either Mexican or Madagascar bourbon for non-dessert recipes.

You’ll also notice differences in flavor depending on when you add the vanilla.

“If you want it to blend in, you want to add it at the beginning of [cooking] a dish. If you want the ‘pop,’ add the vanilla toward the end of cooking so it doesn’t have a chance to evaporate,” Mr. Nielsen says.

To show the versatility of the extract, the vanilla company recently introduced “A Century of Flavor” (Nielsen-Massey Vanillas Inc.). The cookbook features sweet and savory dishes from nationally known chefs.

Here is an adaptation of a crab-cake recipe from the book. Serve it for New Year’s Eve along with a glass of champagne.

Crab cakes with vanilla remoulade

Makes 2 servings as an entree, 4 as an appetizer.

Vanilla remoulade sauce (follows)

12 ounces pasteurized lump crabmeat (see note)

1 cup plain dry breadcrumbs, divided

1/4 cup reduced-fat mayonnaise

1 egg

1 finely chopped green onion

3 tablespoons finely diced red bell pepper

1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh Italian parsley

1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

1 teaspoon Madagascar Bourbon vanilla extract

2 teaspoons unsalted butter

2 teaspoons canola oil

Lemon wedges

Prepare remoulade sauce, cover and refrigerate while making crab cakes.

Pick over crabmeat, discarding any shells. Drain off any liquid. Combine crab, 1/2 cup breadcrumbs, mayonnaise, egg, green onion, bell pepper, parsley, cayenne pepper, salt, black pepper and vanilla in a large bowl. Mix well.

Shape into crab cakes using a rounded 1/4-cup per crab cake. You should have 8 crab cakes. Place remaining 1/2 cup breadcrumbs on a plate. Dredge crab cakes in breadcrumbs to coat. Place butter and oil in large nonstick skillet. Melt butter over medium heat. Gently arrange crab cakes in skillet. Cook for 4 minutes on side one; turn over and cook 2 to 3 minutes on side 2 or until golden.

Serve hot with remoulade sauce and lemon wedges on the side.

Each entree serving (4 crab cakes) has: 600 calories; 25.4 grams total fat; 41 grams protein; 20 grams carbohydrates; 268 milligrams cholesterol; 1325 milligrams sodium and 0.5 grams dietary fiber.

Note: Use refrigerated pasteurized crabmeat.

VANILLA REMOULADE SAUCE

1/4 cup reduced-fat mayonnaise

1 1/2 teaspoons tomato paste

3/4 teaspoon Madagascar bourbon vanilla extract

Combine mayonnaise, tomato paste and vanilla in a bowl. Mix well. Makes 1/4 cup.

Each (2 tablespoon) serving has: 105 calories; 10 grams total fat; 5.5 grams carbohydrates; 10 milligrams cholesterol; 300 milligrams sodium.

cBev Bennett is the author of “30 Minute Meals for Dummies” (John Wiley & Sons).

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