Several weeks ago I got a care package from my parents. In addition to mom’s delicious cookies, Uncle Kenneth’s coffee and some nori rice crackers, I had a special request for these home grown beauties:

Mom and Dad’s vanilla

Gorgeous, plump pods of flavor-packed vanilla! My parents have several vanilla plants growing outside the house. They’re orchid plants, and are not easy to cultivate because they require self-pollination from a specific type of insect. To make it even more difficult, the flowers bloom for only one day, making the window of opportunity rather small for natural reproduction. My dad keeps an eye out for blooming buds, so when the opportunity arises, he uses a ball-point pen to transport the microscopic pollen from stamen to pistil, then lets nature take care of the rest.  Here’s the ripening fruit of the plant several days after pollination, the dried blossoms are shriveled and ready to fall off the ends:

Vanilla plant, image source: http://www.orchidsasia.com/vanil16.htm.

Pretty amazing, isn’t it? And after several months of staying on the vine, they are ready to be harvested, dried, and used in your culinary delights.

Everybody is familiar with the distinct taste of vanilla, which is often second-banana to chocolate (did you know that both were cultivated by the Aztecs?)  and we often take this rather nondescript flavor for granted. But vanilla is a truly wonderful spice that not only gives its own easily recognizable flavor, but enhances others, including chocolate.

Chocolate just wouldn’t be chocolate without vanilla.

So how about adding some vanilla to your life? Let’s start of with the basics:

Vanilla Bean Syrup – Bring 1/2 cup water and 1 cup sugar to a boil in a small saucepan. Remove from heat. Add 1 split vanilla bean, scraping both pod and seeds into mixture, stir and let cool. Reserve the vanilla pod and dry completely before storing for other uses. Pour into clean glass jar, keep tightly closed and let sit one day before using.

Vanilla Bean Paste – Scrape a vanilla bean and mix just enough light corn syrup to make a paste. Can use in place of vanilla extract.

Vanilla Extract – In a jar or bottle, add 2 cups of vodka and 6 vanilla beans. Store in a cool, dark place and let age for 4-6 months, shaking the bottle once a week to distribute the flavors.

Vanilla Sugar – Place a split pod in your sugar container for a delicate fragrance and hint of vanilla flavor.

Beautiful glistening seeds from a Tahitian vanilla pod.

Now that you have the basics, here are some recipes to use your newly made concoctions:

Vanilla Cream Soda – Mix vanilla bean syrup with cold seltzer and add a couple drops of lemon juice.

Panna Cotta (from epicurious.com)In a small bowl, sprinkle 1 envelope (1 teaspoon) gelatin over 2 tablespoons water, let soften for about ten minutes. Menwhile, in a medium saucepan bring 2 1/2 cups heavy cream, 1/2 cup whole milk and 1/3 cup sugar to a boil, stirring constantly. Remove from heat. Stir in gelatin until dissolved. Split a 2″ piece vanilla pod, scraping seeds and adding into milk mixture (alternatively, add 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract.) Divide between four ramekins, chill 8 hours or overnight. (options: float 1 star anise in each ramekin, serve with fresh mixed berries, or top with fruit compote.)

Spiced Vanilla Peach Jam – This was an accident when I tried making Rem Cooks’ Vanilla Peach Butter by following his recipe for Spiced Peach Preserves. As I was heating the peaches I thought, “Boy this smells great…but where’s the vanilla?” Looking over his post, I realized it was the wrong recipe! After pulling up the correct recipe I decided it would be easier to make a few modifications and simply add the vanilla bean. It still came out tasty, especially by following his lead and having it with cream cheese on sourdough toast…delicious!

Ingredients:

2 cups peaches peeled, pitted & roughly chopped
2/3 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
tiny pinch nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon Kosher salt
4″ piece vanilla bean, split and scraped
4 teaspoons lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon lemon zest

Directions:

Put everything in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Boil for 15 minutes or until peaches break up into smaller pieces. Remove from heat and let cool before transferring to a clean glass jar. Will keep in refrigerator for about 10 days.

This peach jam is great on toast, or as a glaze for chicken, ham, or roast pork loin.

In addition to all this sweetness, vanilla can also be used to enhance the flavor of savory dishes, and on Wednesday I will post a special recipe I concocted to celebrate my second wedding anniversary! Here’s a sneak peek at what I’m talking about:

Vanilla can season even the most savory of dishes!

More vanilla goodness coming your way, so stay tuned!

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