Savory influence

Not just for cakes and cookies, vanilla brings a warm, trade-wind presence to vegetables, fish, and meats.

By Adam Ried
December 19, 2010

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You may have finished baking for the holidays by now, but that’s no reason to put away the vanilla. It can contribute depth, fragrance, and an almost floral, tropical essence to savory dishes as well. Vanilla extends the natural sweetness of ingredients such as the beets it glazes here and the orange and fennel in the fish dish. Since vanilla, coconuts, and mangoes grow in similar climates, they too seem like cooking compatriots in the spirit of “if it grows together, it goes together.”

Vanilla and cardamom glazed beets

Serves 6

6 medium-large red and golden beets (2 pounds)

1/3 cup orange juice and ½ teaspoon finely grated zest

1½ tablespoons sherry vinegar

2 teaspoons light brown sugar

2 teaspoons unsalted butter

¼ teaspoon ground cardamom

¼ teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Salt and pepper

Set oven rack in middle position and heat oven to 400 degrees. Wash beets, wrap tightly in foil, place in roasting pan, and cook till tender, about 1½ hours. Unwrap beets and, when cool, peel, cut into wedges, and set aside.

Meanwhile, in large skillet, combine orange juice, zest, vinegar, and sugar, and swirl pan to dissolve sugar. Over medium heat, simmer, swirling occasionally, until reduced and syrupy, about 4 minutes. Adjust heat to low, add butter, and swirl to blend. Add cardamom and vanilla, and swirl to combine. Add beets and salt and pepper to taste, and cook, stirring constantly, until heated through, about 2 minutes. Serve at once.

Orange and vanilla braised fish with fennel

Serves 4

Adapted from Savoring Spices and Herbs, by Julie Sahni (William Morrow, 1996).

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 small onion, thinly sliced

1 large fennel bulb, trimmed and thinly sliced, and 1½ tablespoons chopped fronds, for garnish

½ teaspoon fennel seeds, lightly crushed

Pinch crushed red pepper flakes

1½ teaspoons chopped fresh oregano

2 teaspoons finely grated orange zest and ¾ cup juice, plus 1 orange sectioned and sections sliced crosswise

½ vanilla bean, split lengthwise

Salt and black pepper

1½ pounds boneless, skinless thick white fish fillets

¾ cup halved grape tomatoes

1½ teaspoons fresh lemon juice

In large saucepan over medium heat, heat oil until shimmering. Add onion, fennel, fennel seeds, and red pepper flakes, stir to coat, and cook until mixture is hot, about 2 minutes. Adjust heat to low, and cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables soften, about 7 minutes.

Add oregano and orange zest, and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 1 minute. Scrape the sticky black goo and seeds out of vanilla pod; add goo, seeds, and pod, orange juice, ¾ teaspoon salt, and black pepper to taste, adjust heat to medium, and simmer, stirring occasionally, until liquid reduces almost to a glaze, about 3½ minutes. Sprinkle fish with ½ teaspoon each salt and black pepper and nestle it into the pan. Add tomatoes, adjust heat to medium-low, cover, and cook, basting fish occasionally, until flesh is opaque, about 9 minutes.

Carefully transfer fish to serving platter. Remove vanilla pod; add lemon juice to sauce and stir to combine. Taste sauce and adjust seasoning with salt and black pepper, if necessary; spoon over the fish, top with orange slices, sprinkle with fennel fronds, and serve at once.

Pork chops with mango, coconut milk, and vanilla

Serves 4

4 bone-in pork loin rib chops, 1 inch thick

Salt and black pepper

2 teaspoons vegetable oil

1 medium onion, chopped

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 serrano chili pepper, minced

1 3-inch cinnamon stick

1/3 cup amber rum

½ cup unsweetened coconut milk

1½ teaspoons light brown sugar

2 large mangoes, peeled and flesh chopped (2 cups)

1½ teaspoons lime juice, plus wedges for serving

¼ teaspoon pure vanilla extract

3 scallions, white and light green parts, thinly sliced

Adjust oven rack to center position and heat oven to 400 degrees. Dry chops with paper towel and sprinkle with salt and black pepper. In a large, heavy, ovenproof saute pan, heat oil over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add chops and cook without moving them until deeply browned on the bottom, about 3½ minutes. Turn and cook until the second side is deeply browned, about 3½ minutes, and transfer them to a plate.

Adjust heat to medium, add onion and a pinch of salt, and cook, stirring occasionally and scraping the bottom of pot, until softened, about 4 minutes. Add garlic, serrano chili, and cinnamon stick, and cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 40 seconds. Add rum, increase heat to high, and using a wooden spoon, scrape the bottom of the pot until the brown film dissolves, about 1 minute. Add coconut milk, sugar, and mangoes, and stir to mix. Return chops and any juices to pan, nestling chops into mango mixture but not covering them. Transfer pan to oven; roast until instant-read thermometer inserted into center of chops registers 140 degrees, about 10 minutes. Transfer chops to serving plate, tent with foil, and rest until they reach 145 to 150 degrees.

Meanwhile, taking care with the scorching-hot pan, place over medium heat, bring mango mixture to a simmer, and cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture is slightly thickened, about 2 minutes. Off heat, remove cinnamon; add lime juice, vanilla, ½ teaspoon salt, black pepper to taste, and any meat juices, and stir to mix. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt and black pepper, if necessary. Add most of scallions, stir to combine, spoon sauce over chops, sprinkle with remaining scallions, and serve at once.

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Flavored with vanilla (Globe photo / Jim Scherer)
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The common forms of vanilla

In its most elemental form, vanilla is a bean, the seedpod of a vine in the orchid family. The fresh pods undergo a multi-step curing process, from which they emerge black and glossy. While the pods are flavorful, the real prize is the tiny, inky-black seeds within. Add vanilla bean toward the beginning of cooking so it will have time to infuse the dish.

Vanilla extract is less expensive and more convenient than beans; it should be added as a flavoring at the end of cooking. There are several types of vanilla extract, from imitation to glycerin-based alcohol-free, but as long you do not object to the alcohol in pure vanilla extract, I think this type has the most refined, nuanced flavor. Vanilla is also available powdered in a cornstarch base, and as paste, made from extract and pulverized beans.