Made with white balsamic, at Enchanted Spice Recipes
Scent provides the most vivid link to memory, and serves as a powerful representation of events and places. I remember my first apartment, and the smell of chlorine (from the pool), mint (growning in the courtyard), and a peculiar carpet odor. When I think of India, my nose prickles with the scent of coconut hair oil, the ground after rain, and incinerating garbage. And until recently, the idea of vanilla brought to mind cloying drugstore fragrances and intolerably scented candles.
But not anymore.
Now properly schooled in the ways of vanilla, I associate the flavor with a delicate waft of tropical blossoms, and marshmallows eaten slowly, their powdery coatings licked from each finger. Vanilla is the smell of macaroons and good cream soda, of warm sea air, sugary custard...
Although vanilla beans look similar to green beans or other pod-based plants, they are part of the orchid family. Most are grown in Madagascar, Tahiti, or Mexico, and are one of the most labor-intensive crops to cultivate. After a ten-month maturation period, they are harvested as each individual bean achieves its perfect ripeness. The beans are then cured, sorted, and graded according to size, appearance, and moisture content. This rigorous process allows the best beans to command steep prices for use in culinary applications.
Fortunately, using the vanilla bean isn't nearly as labor-intensive. In recipes where the flavor of vanilla is a supporting element, or the tiny flecks would be lost--like most cookies--the extract is preferable. If, however, the seeds will remain visible, and the delicate, pure flavor of vanilla is desired, a vanilla bean is the best choice. 1" of vanilla bean is equivalent to about 1 teaspoon of extract.
When purchasing vanilla beans, look for plump, dark pods that appear slightly shiny on the surface. Be sure they are packaged in an airtight container like a corked vial or plastic-lined spice jar. When you buy the beans whole, shop around; they can usually be found for less than $1 per bean.
After you've scraped the seeds from a bean, they can still be used to infuse foods with flavor. Toss a spent pod into your sugar tub for vanilla sugar. Simmer it with hot cocoa or dessert sauces. Even steep it in vinegar for unique savory dishes and vinaigrettes, as below.
Vanilla extract is simple to make: Place 1-2 vanilla beans in a glass jar and fill with 1 cup of your favorite vodka. Place in a dark space, shaking occasionally, and allow to steep for 1 month.
Another simple thing to do with vanilla is steep it in a neutral-flavored vinegar. Balsamic varieties abound, but I prefer a lighter vinegar to emphasize the sweet, delicate nature of the bean.
Add this unique and tangy liquid to sauces, dressings, drinks, or anywhere vinegar is called for.
2 cup white wine, champagne, raw coconut, or white balsamic vinegar
1 whole vanilla bean
Pour the vinegar into a mason jar or other glass jar (an old vinegar bottle is ideal for this). Split the bean lengthwise, and use a knife to scrape the seeds into the bottle. Add the bean, cover, and give the jar a gentle shake. If you prefer the vinegar without the tiny seeds, double the amount of vanilla beans and leave the bean whole.
Allow it to sit for at least a week, and up to several months, to develop flavor. Before using the vinegar, gently shake the bottle to stir up any seeds that have sunk to the bottom.
One of the loveliest uses for the vinegar is in this tangy, old school tonic.
vanilla sugar, for serving
1 tablespoon agave nectar
1 tablespoon Vanilla Vinegar
1 cup raspberries
2 cups unflavored sparkling water
spritz of lemon (optional)
Wet the edges of two glasses and dip in vanilla sugar. Set aside to dry.
In a small bowl, muddle together the agave nectar, Vanilla Vinegar, and raspberries until the raspberries bleed. Divide the mixture between the prepared glasses, and top with sparkling water, stirring briefly to combine. Add a spritz of lemon, if you like, and serve immediately.