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Make mine vanilla

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Why do we say “just plain vanilla,” when there is really nothing plain about it? In fact, vanilla is an exotic and captivating essence derived from the slender pods of a vining orchid. The pods, also known as beans contain tiny seeds that pack a wallop of familiar flavor.

Vanilla is harvested from tropical regions, with varying nuances, think grapes for wine or coffee beans. Soil types and climatic conditions, as well as the curing process influence the distinctive taste profiles.

Basic types:

  • Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla makes up 75% of what is on the market today. This is a traditional vanilla; rich, sweet, creamy and slightly earthy.
  • Mexican Vanilla is known as “vanilla from the land of origin,” since the vines were first discovered in Mexico and Central America. Mexican vanilla is more subtle and spicy.
  • Tahitian Vanilla has a distinctive fruity, floral quality. It tends to be sweeter and is especially nice with fruit and custards.

When shopping for vanilla price really does count. This is not the time to try to save a bit of pocket money; it only takes a teaspoon or two to infuse baked goods or savory dishes. Beyond price, read the label. It should say “pure vanilla extract.” The ingredients should include water, alcohol (35%), premium vanilla bean extractives and sugar (3%). That’s it: no added artificial colors or flavors. Often, specialty food shops will have samples of their products. Seize the opportunity to taste; this will help familiarize you with the notes of each type of vanilla.

Being more vanilla savvy, how do we use this enticing liquid? Crumbly sugar cookies, dense pound cake and just-churned ice cream are obvious favorites. Beloved chocolate dishes are enhanced by a teaspoonful of intoxicating vanilla. For a unique underlying flavor, drop some vanilla into savory dishes. It will add that interesting, I-wonder-what-it-was quality to a dish.

Try: scrape the seeds from the beans and add them to a savory rub for pork or chicken, served with grilled apples or peaches for a Valentine’s Day tête-à-tête.

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