What ingredient is present in most every sweet treat and also serves a supporting role in some savory recipes too? Vanilla! You'd be surprised by the difference even just a teaspoon of this delicious liquid can make to a recipe.
Inspired by the 2011 Daily Herald Cook of the Week competition, and a more recent visit to the Waukegan home of Nielsen-Massey Vanillas Company, I decided to prove that vanilla isn't just for baking any longer.
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In the second round of the Cook of the Week Challenge pork chops, ricotta cheese, beets and vanilla were the mystery ingredients I had to work with. As I thought about what I might create with those ingredients I found myself struggling to incorporate vanilla into a savory dish. I couldn't remember using vanilla in anything other than sweets.
In the end I incorporated vanilla into a pork marinade and into the ricotta cheese that I mixed with grated apples and bread crumbs and crusted around the chops. I was pleasantly surprised at how well vanilla enhanced the flavors, and have made the dish at home a number of times since.
Most of us are familiar with vanilla as the thin brown liquid extract we measure by teaspoonful into cookies and cakes, but vanilla flavor may be obtained from a number of different sources. Of course, you can slice open a vanilla bean to reveal tiny seeds you can scrape up to use in recipes, and then use the remaining bean to add to a bottle of good vodka, or your sugar canister to make vanilla sugar. For a change, vanilla powder can be used in applications where extract may not be best suited and vanilla bean paste, a combination of both vanilla and vanilla seeds all in one jar adds both flavor and visual appeal. There are also different varieties within the vanilla family. Madagascar vanilla is the most familiar variety while Tahitian beans are preferred by many pastry chefs for their delicate flavor. The Mexican variety works well in savory dishes.
On a cold and overcast day I pulled up to the Nielsen-Massey Vanillas Company and was overwhelmed by the wonderful aromas that greeted me when I got out of my car. The smell was almost enough to make me stay in the parking lot, but I decided it might smell even better inside, though that hardly seemed possible.
I toured the factory and watched guest chef Eric Lanlard demonstrate two recipes from his book "Tart It Up" that incorporated vanilla.
Chef Lanlard made a savory tart that included a delicate pastry, made in an unusual way that did not require the cutting of cold fat into flour, instead you use your finger tips to combine the two resulting in a soft dough that later became a flaky sturdy crust perfect to support the tart filling. After baking the pastry, he added a combination of smoked salmon that had been brushed with vanilla bean paste, beaten eggs, whole grain mustard, dill and creme fraiche before returning the tart to the oven to continue cooking until firm. I can attest this tart is delicious at any temperature and have made it a number of times, always receiving rave reviews.
The other treat from my visit to Nielsen-Massey was my tour of their vanilla manufacturing plant, which of course also smelled fantastic. Inside the factory, several rows of large vats containing chopped vanilla beans steeping in alcohol, like tea leaves in hot water. Once the beans are no longer needed they are separated from the liquid which is strained and bottled. Seeds are then separated from what is left of the beans and either added to vanilla to make a paste, or sold to companies that will use the tiny seeds in items like ice cream. A very interesting, yet simple process, that creates a product with such great flavor.
I am thankful the Cook of the Week Challenge competition helped me to think beyond my comfort zone. Vanilla is now an ingredient in both sweet and savory recipe in my kitchen, adding a depth of flavor only vanilla can, when used in either application.
• Penny Kazmier, a wife and mother of four lives in South Barrington. Write her at firstname.lastname@example.org.