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I Spice: Vanilla

A vanilla orchid at the U.S. National Arboretum. (James R. Adams -- Associated Press)

Born of an orchid, oh vanilla, how many ways are there to love you? In shampoo, toothpaste, air freshener. . . oh yes, and in food. I think it is safe to say that we all love vanilla, for its heady aroma and its comforting taste.

Lesley Chesterman, restaurant critic and columnist at the Montreal Gazette, shared a true insight on why we love vanilla: “I will never forget the blissful look on my children's faces the moment they took their first whiff of vanilla extract. Discovering the bean is an even greater thrill, because its aroma is more botanical, earthy and mysterious. Yet that childhood familiarity always lurks behind.”

For cooking purposes, I see vanilla sold most commonly as an extract and a whole bean. I tend to use the extract in my cooking, but Lesley, a former pastry chef, told me the beans are a must for flavoring desserts such as creams, custards, flans and poundcakes. She advises microwaving the bean for 10 seconds to soften it a little, then splitting and scraping out the pulp that contains the seeds. You can then add the seeds per your recipe's directions.

And the pods? Lesley says they are even more flavorful than the seeds and shouldn’t be wasted. Rinse and dry them, then add them to a container of granulated sugar for vanilla sugar.

The beans are expensive, and I worried that I would not be able to store the ones that I did not use. “A decade ago at the Salon des Saveurs in Paris, I met a vanilla merchant who told me to store the pods in a cool, dark place upright in a Mason jar with a half-inch of either white rum or vodka at the bottom to keep them moist. I swear by this method, which has allowed me to keep a decent stash of plump vanilla beans for years,” Lesley told me. What a great tip. She recommends Web sites such as and, where excellent beans can be purchased for a fraction of the usual price. (The latter site is on summer hiatus and will resume shipping Aug. 14.)

Recently, I was lucky enough to be able to attend a vanilla class taught by Patricia Jinich, chef of the Mexican Cultural Institute in Washington, where she sauteed vanilla bean for a salad! She said that, contrary to popular belief, vanilla did not originate in Madagascar but in Veracruz, Mexico.

And she shared a love story about the legend behind the pod: The Totonacas were the people who inhabited the region of Totonacapan in Mexico, where vanilla originated and was harvested for centuries. The Totonacas had many gods, including a goddess named Tonocayohua. Princess Tzacopontziza had been sent to a temple to dedicate her life to caring for this goddess. A very handsome prince, Zcatan-Oxga, caught a glimpse of her and fell in love. They eloped, even though they knew that the punishment would be death. They were found by the evil king; the prince and princess were beheaded.

Where their noble blood spilled, a beautiful and exotic plant started to grow. The Totonacas claimed it was the tragic couple, holding each other in a dear and eternal embrace, producing a flower and fruit so fragrant and sweet because of the forbidden passion they could never share. Vanilla was declared sacred and was used for special ceremonies, drinks and dishes.

As Patricia was preparing her vanilla-flavored dishes, she touched very briefly on why the pods are so expensive. First, of the more than 30,000 orchid varieties, only one produces the beans. Second, the processing is key in turning the green-gold pods into the dark-brown beans we love. Why? Fresh beans have no aroma. That comes from an enzymatic action during curing. The beans have to be left out for about 10 days, sweating by night and sunbathing during the day. By then they are the deep-brown color we know. But they still must be air-dried for four to five months before they’re ready to be graded and packed.

Patricia Jinich's grilled shrimp and pineapple on greens sauteed with vanilla bean; keep reading to get the recipe. (Monika Pamp)

Of course, vanilla is available in other forms, including powder and paste. Nielsen-Massey is one of the better-known sources for all sorts of vanilla products. (Its products are also available through the Spice House.) Sometimes you can find vanilla paste at Trader Joe’s. J.R. Watkins carries a line of natural and organic vanilla extracts. (It also carries a colorless imitation vanilla, for folks who don’t want to add even a hint of color to their angel cake. It’s good, but it isn’t the pure vanilla we all love.)

So the next time you hear someone say something is “just plain vanilla,” you’ll know that’s really a compliment.

-- Monica Bhide

Grilled Shrimp and Pineapple Salad With Sauteed Vanilla Bean
8 servings

MAKE AHEAD: You will make more vinaigrette than you need for this recipe. It needs to rest for 2 hours before using. It can be assembled and refrigerated in a tight-fitting container for up to 1 week. Stir before using.

For the vinaigrette
1/2 cup olive oil
1 medium clove garlic, smashed
Half a (2- or 3-inch length) vanilla bean, cut into very thin strips
1 arbol chili pepper (or more, as desired), stemmed and cut crosswise into thin slices (reserve the seeds)
1/4 cup safflower or corn oil
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1/8 teaspoon ground allspice
1 teaspoon kosher or sea salt, or more to taste
1/8 teaspoon sugar, or more to taste

For the salad

Safflower or corn oil, for the pan
1/3 pineapple, peeled and cut into1/2-inch slices
1 pound large or extra-large peeled and deveined raw shrimp
Kosher or sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 tablespoon safflower or corn oil
11 to 12 ounces mixed spring salad greens (or your choice of mixed baby lettuces), rinsed and dried
1 small red onion, cut into very thin slices

For the vinaigrette: Heat the olive oil in a heavy medium saucepan over medium heat for a minute or two, until it is hot but not smoking. Add the garlic, vanilla bean and chili pepper, including the seeds. Cook for 10 to 15 seconds, stirring constantly. (Be careful not to burn those ingredients, as they have all nice intense flavors, but if burnt they will taste very bitter.) Remove from the heat and transfer to a blender or a mixing bowl.

Add the safflower or corn oil, vinegar, allspice, salt and sugar. If using a blender, remove the center knob of the lid and place a dish towel over the opening; this will help allow steam to escape and keep the lid from blowing off. Or use an immersion blender for the mixture in the bowl. Puree until smooth; taste and add salt and/or sugar as needed, then transfer to an airtight container. Cover and let sit at room temperature for 2 hours before using (to allow the flavors to meld). At this point, the vinaigrette can be refrigerated for up to 1 week.

For the salad: Heat a medium grill pan or nonstick skillet over medium-heat. Add just enough oil to coat the bottom, then add the pineapple slices in a single layer. Cook for about 4 minutes per side, or until they are slightly browned. Remove from the heat. When they are cool enough to handle, cut in half to make half-moons, discard the cores, then cut into wedges (with the grain).

Rinse the shrimp and drain well. Right before serving, sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste.

Heat the butter and oil in a medium saute pan over high heat until the mixture begins to bubble. Add the shrimp and cook for 1 to 2 minutes per side; you may need to cook the shrimp in two batches so they don’t overlap. (Alternatively, you can brush them well with a little oil and grill over medium heat.) The shrimp should have plumped up and changed color on both sides, but be careful not to overcook them.

To assemble: Place the greens in a large salad bowl. Drizzle with one-quarter of the vinaigrette and toss to coat evenly. Divide the dressed greens among individual plates.
Place equal amounts of shrimp on each portion of greens, a few tablespoons of the pineapple pieces and some of the onion. Drizzle a little of the remaining vinaigrette on each portion before serving.

Per serving: 212 calories, 13 g protein, 9 g carbohydrates, 14 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 90 mg cholesterol, 258 mg sodium, 1 g dietary fiber, 6 g sugar

By The Food Section  |  July 10, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  I Spice , Recipes  | Tags: I Spice, Monica Bhide, recipes, vanilla  
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Vanilla originated in Mexico indeed, but nobody knew how to make it fruit until a slave on Reunion Island (then call Bourbon Island, not too far from Madagascar - now a very large producer of vanilla) figured it out in the early 19th century. In Mexico, vanilla is naturally pollinated by a specific wasp (as is common with many orchids which have specialized pollinators).

Vanilla is expensive also because it needs to be hand pollinated, hand picked, and then cured - as you described it.

Sylvie Rowand

Posted by: rowandk | July 13, 2009 9:21 PM | Report abuse

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