Sunday, June 28, 2009

Vanilla: An Unsung Zesty Ingredient?

Vanilla gets a bum rap as being "plain" or boring. Not true! There's a reason -- actually, there are many reasons -- why vanilla is generally considered the world's most popular flavor, and I'll gladly share a few of my reasons for loving this unsung hero or "character actor" of the zesty world. If you've only had imitation vanilla flavoring, or have never used a real vanilla bean, you don't know what you're missing!

Just as with coffee beans and wine grapes, the origins of a vanilla bean will affect its flavor and fragrance. Vanilla can brighten or enhance the spicy flavors in chili pepper dishes, add complexity and richness of flavor by reducing acidity in savory tomato dishes, and can complement citrus and other fruit flavors in desserts and in sauces. Here are the 3 major types of vanilla and how they differ:

Mexican: Vanilla beans from Mexico tend to be somewhat thick, with a creamy flavor and spicy notes that make them especially well-suited for savory dishes -- Mexican vanilla will help round out the sharpness of acidic foods like tomatoes.

Madagascar: This is the ideal vanilla for everyday desserts and sweets, with a naturally sweet and creamy flavor. Madagascar vanilla has the thinnest beans, and is also called Bourbon Vanilla.

Tahitian: This is the darkest and thickest of the vanilla types, and is actually a different species from Mexican or Madagascar vanilla. Its exotic flavor is brigher, with fruity and floral notes that make it perfect for fruit-based desserts, and also for homemade vanilla ice cream.

When buying whole vanilla beans or pods, take a sniff and select beans that have a strong vanilla scent. Also look for beans that are long and have a powdery white dusting over the shriveled black skin. Store the beans in an airtight glass jar or plastic bag at room temperature. To use the beans, split down the middle and scrape out the seeds with the dull edge of a knife for use in recipes. Save the pod for steeping in milk or for making vanilla sugar, or chop it for use in homemade potpourri. You can steep a bean in milk to flavor the milk, and the bean can then be removed, rinsed well and dried thoroughly for future use (you can get several uses out of 1 bean if you take care to rinse well and dry thoroughly before storing). To make vanilla sugar, simply place a whole vanilla bean in a jar of sugar, and shake every few days. One bean can flavor the entire sugar jar for a good year or more.

Zesty cooking tip: Add a tablespoon of Mexican vanilla extract to homemade spaghetti sauce or to a pot of chili to take the acidic edge off tomatoes and to enhance the spiciness of peppers. You'll love the enriched depth of flavor, and your guests will never guess what the "secret ingredient" is!

Zestfully yours,
Carolina Sauce Company, Inc.

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