Chow Town

Plain Talk about Vanilla

Overlooked and underappreciated, vanilla is a bit like Cinderella before the ball.

Often taken for granted, vanilla is found in many recipes. Like Cinderella, vanilla is full of surprises.

For starters, it is a fruit. That’s right. The wrinkled brown seed pod is actually the fruit of a glamorous tropical orchid. The pod, which is nothing special to look at, harbors a rich flavor. When you scrape a vanilla pod, or open a bottle of vanilla extract, your senses are treated to a heady, sexy aromatic treat. Plain Jane vanilla becomes a dazzling princess, able to transform ordinary dishes into full-flavored, pleasing creations.

Despite the wide-spread popularity of the expression ‘plain vanilla,’ there is actually nothing plain or boring about vanilla. Growing vanilla is a labor-intensive business requiring great care and great weather.

Hawaiian vanilla is the only vanilla produced in the United States. Vanilla is typically from Indonesia, Tahiti, Mexico or Madagascar. Vanilla, once one of the world’s most expensive spices, surpassing even saffron in price, is now more readily available with new growing regions adding to production and with the wide-spread use of synthetic vanilla.

As with all farming operations, Mother Nature and conditions conspire to provide a good harvest or create challenges. Incredibly, vanilla production requires almost a year’s time between pollination and curing. Hand pollination of a special Vanilla planifolia orchid flower is necessary for the plant to produce a vanilla pod.

Growing a mature orchid capable of producing a bloom may take up to three years. The long-awaited flower lasts about one day, requiring hand pollination during a very specific time frame of just a few hours. The pollination season starts in February and ends in June. Careful pruning must occur throughout the rest of the season and if luck and science are in alignment, the harvest occurs in late November or December.

You would think the greenhouses they use would smell like vanilla heaven. This is not the case, as the orchids do not emit a fragrance. Actually, you cannot enjoy the scent of vanilla until the last month of vanilla bean curing. Curing involves “killing” the beans after harvest by immersion in hot water followed by a long slow drying period, lasting upwards of four months, designed to extract all moisture. Some operations rush this step as a cost-saving measure.

Folklore: Vanilla was enjoyed by the Aztecs in a drink called Xoco-lall, which was made from cocoa and Vanilla beans. Cortéz sampled this drink and returned to Spain with reports it contained magical powers. Europeans mixed Vanilla beans with their tobacco for smoking and chewing, and considered it a miracle drug.

Vanilla Pumpkin Soup
Makes 8 to 10 servings 1 medium onion, diced 1/3 cup butter 6 cups chicken or vegetable stock 1 can (29-ounces) pumpkin (I have substituted squash for this)
1/4 vanilla bean 1 tablespoon vanilla extract 1 tablespoon cardamom Salt and ground white pepper to taste 1/2 — 1 cup of half half or milk, optional Macadamia nuts, optional

Sauté onion in butter on medium-low heat until transparent and soft. Add stock, pumpkin, vanilla bean and extract, cardamom, salt and pepper.

Cook on medium heat until thoroughly heated. Lower heat and add half half or milk to desired consistency.

This soup can be made in advance in order for the vanilla to permeate. Warm on low heat and add the half half before serving.

Serve with candied macadamia nuts (shake nuts a bag with powdered sugar and sauté on low heat in a little butter until browned. Pour on plate to cool.) Chop the nuts into pieces and serve with soup.

Donna Cook is the owner of Rabbit Creek Gourmet Foods in Louisburg, Kan. She is also a Master Gardener, Master Food Volunteer and on the board of directors of the Home Baking Association.