From entrees to desserts, vanilla will thrill taste buds |

From entrees to desserts, vanilla will thrill taste buds

Neil Simon’s Felix Unger and Oscar Madison may be the ultimate “odd couple” in the theatrical world, but the culinary world has unusual pairings, too.

For example, if you were dining at New York’s Compass restaurant, you might order citrus-cured salmon and find it napped with a vanilla-orange sauce, while lightly breaded shrimp with vanilla bean sauce appears on the menu of Chicago’s Thyme restaurant.

And if you were down in Miami, you would see chef-owner Allen Susser in his Aventura restaurant preparing scallops with saffron enhanced by vanilla.

This seemingly odd coupling of vanilla and savory dishes is not a wild contemporary craze. 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. 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 says.

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.” 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.

Other chefs have discovered that vanilla 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 also can boost the flavor of savory foods. For Patricia Rain, author of “Vanilla Cookbook” (Celestial Arts, 1986), vanilla first occurred to her as a savory ingredient when preparing chicken with tarragon. She 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.

“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,” Rain says. The flavoring appears in eggplant puree in Turkey and simmering shellfish soup in The Netherlands.

Even in ancient times, vanilla never was considered ordinary. The Aztecs regarded it 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 was also thought of as an aphrodisiac and was forbidden to young people.

That’s pretty provocative stuff for an amber liquid in a little brown bottle or a shriveled 10-inch-long bean.

The process of making vanilla is time-consuming. 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 . Although the plant originated in Mexico, today it is grown in Tahiti, Madagascar, Central and South America, the Philippines 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 must 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 bean. 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. Then they have to be handled every day for about six months. During the day, they are spread on racks under a hot sun. At night, they are wrapped in blankets and placed in wooden boxes to sweat, which reduces the moisture content and turns the beans their characteristic dark brown color.

The beans are 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.

Vanilla Vinaigrette

This sweet and savory dressing perfectly complements salad greens. Top with fresh strawberries or other seasonal fruit for a refreshing twist.

  • 1/3 cup olive oil
  • 3 tablespoons white wine vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 teaspoon dried tarragon
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper, freshly ground
  • 1/2 teaspoon granulated sugar
  • Salad greens and fruit of choice

In a medium bowl, combine the olive oil, vinegar, vanilla, tarragon, salt, pepper and sugar. Mix well. Chill before using with salad greens and fruit.

Makes 4 servings.

Mango, Vanilla and Rum Salsa

Chef Allen Susser says that this fresh tropical fruit salsa matches crab cakes, pan-roasted scallops, crisp calamari, grilled grouper, rare tuna or chilled lobster salad.

  • 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-size sweet red pepper, diced
  • 1 medium-size red onion, diced
  • 1 medium jalapeno pepper, finely diced
  • 1/4 bunch cilantro leaves, chopped
  • 2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons dark rum
  • Juice of 1 lime

In a large stainless-steel bowl, combine the mangoes, papaya, sweet pepper, red onion, jalapeno and cilantro. In a separate bowl, mix the cumin, salt, vanilla, oil, rum and lime juice.

Combine the dressing with the mango mixture and mix gently. Cover and refrigerate for 1 hour before serving.

Makes 6 servings.

Glazed Pork Tenderloin

This recipe was adapted from one by Susser.

  • 2 (1-pound) pork tenderloins
  • 1/4 cup honey
  • 2 tablespoons vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1/2 teaspoon paprika
  • 1/4 teaspoon dry mustard
  • 1/8 teaspoon black pepper, freshly ground
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt

Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Place the tenderloins on a rack in a baking pan.

Mix the honey, vinegar, vanilla, paprika, dry mustard, pepper and salt. Brush the meat with the glaze.

Roast for 45 minutes or until the pork reaches an internal temperature of 160 degrees on an instant-read thermometer, brushing with glaze every 10 to 15 minutes. Slice the meat and serve.

Makes 8 servings.

Additional Information:

Vanilla Tips

  • Store vanilla beans and extract in airtight containers in a cool, dry place. Do not refrigerate. Chef Allen Susser’s preference is the whole bean when possible.

  • Whole vanilla beans can be used in two ways: Split down the center with the seeds scraped out and added directly to the food, or the whole bean can be added to flavor sauces or other mixtures. The bean can 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 importantly, its quality can’t be matched.

  • To avoid dissipation of flavor, add vanilla to cooked mixtures after they’ve been cooked.

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