Column #1: Flavor Focus – Vanilla

rilled Baby Scallops with Vanilla Beans
Keyah Grande’s Grilled Baby Scallops with Vanilla Beans

When Ben & Jerry’s added organic ice cream to its eclectic lineup, it’s no accident that one of the four available flavors was vanilla. According to both the International Dairy Foods Association and International Ice Cream Association, vanilla remains Americans’ flavor of choice by a landslide.

But vanilla is finding its way into more than ice cream these days. In the organic food marketplace, you’ll find a new wave of vanilla-flavored cereals, teas, coffees, soymilks, flavored milks, yogurts and desserts, among other products. Just check out Peace Cereal Vanilla Almond Crisp, Nature’s Path Vanilla Animal Cookies, Earth’s Best Sesame Street Very Vanilla Shortbread Cookies, Dean’s Beans Vanilla and Vanilla Decaf Organic Coffees, Whole Foods Organic Vanilla Pudding, Edensoy Extra Vanilla Organic Soymilk, Stonyfield Farm Organic Lowfat Vanilla Yogurt Smoothie and Horizon Organic Vanilla Milk.

The intoxicating smell and unmistakable taste of vanilla are a warm, nostalgic reminder of Grandma baking cookies on a Sunday afternoon. Perhaps this explains why demand for vanilla puddings, cookies and other treats increased after 9/11. In fact, Americans consume roughly 1,200 tons of vanilla beans each year.

“The smell of real vanilla flavor is comfort food for your nose,” says former talk-show host Jenny Jones, who is working on an anti-aging cookbook that will be released next spring. “I can’t imagine baking without it,” she tells OrganicAuthority.com. “What would rice pudding be without it? Or Christmas cookies? I love vanilla and even used to wear a perfume that was made with the scent. At the time, I was dating a guitar player, and one day he said, ‘You smell so good. It reminds me of my mother’s sugar cookies.’ I think you get my point!”

Professional and home cooks seeking the finest-quality organic vanilla have numerous choices. You can buy organic vanilla beans, extracts and powders from top companies like Amadeus Vanilla Beans, Nielsen-Massey Vanillas, Inc., and Tropical Traditions.

“Vanilla is the world’s second most expensive spice,” says Chef Tina Luu, head baking instructor and pastry chef at The Art Institute of California-San Diego. (Saffron ranks No. 1.) Vanilla is actually a pod from an exotic yellow orchid, first used by the Aztecs in the 16th century. Once you slice open the pod, the dark-flecked beans that provide intense flavor are revealed.

Indigenous to tropical climates, vanilla has “universal appeal,” Chef Luu tells OrganicAuthority.com. “It is wonderful alone, as a single note, or layered together for complexity. For example, pure vanilla extract has a great aroma. Layer it with vanilla sugar, and you have a second note within the same family. Go further still, with a scraping of vanilla bean, and you get a full ‘chord’ of flavors layered upon each other. Similar, yet different. Complex. Consider, too, that vanilla beans from different regions have different flavor profiles.”

Indeed, vanilla beans with distinctive nuances come from four principal parts of the world, so take this into account when buying pods and extracts at your local natural foods store:

  • Madagascar: Mellow and creamy; often referred to as “bourbon” vanilla beans because they’re grown on the Bourbon Islands
  • Mexico: Mild and smooth
  • Tahiti: More aromatic, musky and sweet
  • Indonesia: Smokier and sharper

“I prefer Bourbon-Madagascar beans, pure extract and paste — particularly when I bake in small batches, when each ingredient has to be measured properly and only a small amount of flavoring is added,” says Debby Maugans Nakos, author of Small-Batch Baking. “The essence of the vanilla must prevail and not lose flavor as the product is baked,” she tells OrganicAuthority.com. “Vanilla produced in that region tastes pure and pronounced. My 4-year-old puts it succinctly: When the batter is made, she’ll ask if I’ve added the ‘perfume’ — the vanilla. When I’m out of the good stuff and have substituted a store brand, I cannot convince her that the vanilla is in there. She can smell the difference — and so can I.” (The “good stuff” comes from Nielsen-Massey, Nakos explains.)

Vanilla first arouses our sense of smell, “which sets off a feeling of pleasure,” says Chef Gilbert Boyd, an instructor at the California School of Culinary Arts. It then reaches the palate and does wonders, especially when combined with the right foods, he tells OrganicAuthority.com.

“A vanilla bean can be used as is, finely chopped or reduced to a powder in a blender,” he adds. “The beans can be used whole to flavor milk, syrups and fruit. Just split them in half lengthwise, let them steep in cold liquid, and heat to the desired temperature.”

A quality pod is “plump, soft, slightly greasy and very aromatic,” according to Janet Hazen, author of Vanilla. Avoid pods that are “dry, hard and brittle,” she advises, as these are signs of age. Store pods in tightly sealed plastic bags in a cool, dark area of the kitchen. Whenever possible, choose pods over extracts, as they won’t leave an aftertaste. If you plan to use extract (vanilla mixed with alcohol), make sure to purchase one composed of pure vanilla — not imitation or diluted varieties, which are far less fragrant.

The latest culinary trend is use of vanilla in savory dishes. Today’s top chefs are utilizing it to bring out the flavors of poultry, shellfish and beef. Chef Luu is no stranger to vanilla-scented-squab, vanilla-rubbed roasted leg of lamb, a splash of vanilla in barbeque sauce and black pepper combined with vanilla as a seasoning.

At Keyah Grande in Pagosa Springs, Colorado, Chefs Alex Talbot and Aki Kamozawa –husband and wife, as well as partners in gourmet cuisine — are committed to using artisanal and organic foods in their menu, which changes daily. The chefs believe in “harnessing flavors,” such as mixing vanilla, chipotle peppers and black rum to create a braising liquid for short ribs. They infuse browned butter with vanilla beans and brush it over broiled oysters. And one of their signature dishes consists of grilled baby scallops threaded with vanilla beans, topped with a squeeze of lime (recipe follows).

Perhaps Chef Luu sums it up best: “Though there are many people who prefer other flavors to vanilla, I do not know of anyone who dislikes it.”

Check out Laura Lynn Klein’s Organic Vanilla Cured Pork Loin with Roasted Turnips in a Maple Vanilla Sauce.

 

Keyah Grande’s Grilled Baby Scallops with Vanilla Beans

 

Serves 2

8 oz. bay scallops (preferably Nantucket Bay)
2 vanilla beans, split and scraped
Salt
2 tablespoons butter
Wedge of lime

 

  1. Divide the scallops among the four pieces of vanilla bean and thread them horizontally onto the beans. If necessary, you can poke a hole through the scallops with a larding needle or skewer.
  2. Season the scallops very lightly with salt.
  3. Heat a medium-sized sauté pan, and add 1 tablespoon butter. When the butter froths and melts, add the scallops to the pan. Sear on one side until golden brown. Flip and add the other tablespoon of butter.
  4. Baste scallops thoroughly with the butter in the pan, and remove to a warm plate.
  5. Squeeze the lime juice over the scallops and serve.