Vanilla – It’s ironic that among the orchid family of plants, the most numerous and geographically widespread family of plants on the planet, only one offers a food product. The seed pods of the climbing perennial orchid Vanilla planifolia native to Central America have no flavor or aroma when they are picked. They are parboiled, sun-dried, and fermented in a lengthy and complicated process during which the pods shrivel, darken, and develop aromatic compounds, the most recognizable of which is vanillin.
Today vanilla is grown commercially in Mexico, Reunion, Madagascar, Tahiti, and Indonesia, and although each claims superiority over the others, I doubt that even the most sensitive palate would be able to distinguish them. It is available in most supermarkets in two forms: whole “beans” (the commercial designation for the seed pods); and as an extract made by macerating the pods in alcohol.
The Aztecs introduced their Spanish conquerors to vanilla as an ingredient in the chocolate beverage served in the court of Montezuma, and the Spanish returned to Spain with both chocolate and vanilla. It is still used widely for its original purpose in the manufacture of chocolates and other sweets, as well as in the full spectrum of baked goods, ice creams, and sweet treats the world over. The beans may be used whole to infuse sauces and syrups, after which they may be rinsed, dried, and reused. Added whole to sugar, they will impart their unique flavour to the sugar for use in baking or for sweetening a cup of coffee or tea. The beans may also be split and the tiny black seeds may be scraped out of the pod prior to being added to a dish. Although its primary use is to flavour sweet preparations, vanilla also goes well with seafood (especially lobster, scallops, and mussels) and is also added to black beans in Mexico.
When buying vanilla extract, be sure to look for “pure vanilla extract” on the label, and when buying whole dried beans, try to buy those with a light dusting of white crystals of vanillin on the surface. Vanilla beans will retain their flavour for up to two years if properly stored, and vanilla extract will last indefinitely.