Most often when we talk about good vanilla extract or vanilla beans, we picture using it to make a great dessert. We associate it with something sweet and can’t imagine it otherwise.
I grew up with Vanilla Wafers (are those cookies still around?), vanilla ice cream, vanilla pudding, etc. But it wasn’t before living in France for a few years that I noticed some unusual uses for vanilla in savory dishes.
I had been buying vanilla extract at the grocery store for use in desserts, not really paying attention to its low quality: it often had artificial coloring.
It wasn’t until I made an effort to buy a high-quality pure extract, pod or powder that I started using vanilla in a variety of dishes with beautiful results. When I became really demanding, I began using only pure extracts from Tahiti.
What’s so Special About Tahitian Vanilla?
First of all, it’s quite rare: the majority of the world’s vanilla comes from Madagascar and Indonesia. Tahitian vanilla represents less than 1% of worldwide production.
Secondly, the Tahitian vanilla plant, or Vanilla Tahitensis, is a different varietal than the more common Vanilla Planifolia which comprises most of the world’s production.
Its distinguishing feature is in the pod of the Vanilla Tahitensis, which is the only kind that does not split before maturity. This allows nature to produce many additional vanillin flavors within the pod.
In “ordinary” vanilla, the pod splits open when ripe. To avoid this bursting of the pod, vanilla growers harvest the vanilla when it is still green. However, this limits somewhat its flavor development.
Since it does not split at maturity, Tahitian vanilla can be harvested when fully ripe, when the taste and flavors are at their finest.
A few technical characteristics:
Another distinguishing feature of this rare varietal: the fatty acids present in its pods which are thicker and oilier than its competitors. Many have described their unique taste as being comprised of floral notes with caramel and chocolate aromas.
The originality and intensity of the aromatic bouquet also come from its molecules. Tahitian Vanilla is notably the only vanilla containing a very high proportion of p-hydroxybenzoic acid.
However, the most remarkable molecule is ethyl vanillin: a vanilla flavor which is 3 to 4 times more intense than that of vanillin.
For all these reasons it is sought after by world-class chefs. It is the vanilla bean used in many Michelin starred restaurants.
How I Use It At Home
An easy way to up-level your meals at home without being a grand chef is to add a high-quality pure Tahitian vanilla extract to raw vegetable dishes.
While it can be expensive compared to diluted or low-quality vanilla, a little bit goes a long way.
2 Ways I use Tahitian Vanilla a simple Starter course:
1. Tomato Salad:
Go to my IGTV channel (@nancyconwayparis), to see me make this recipe from start to finish. It’s simply raw, sliced tomatoes with a vinaigrette made of red wine raspberry vinegar, a dash of Tahitian Vanilla powder or extract mixed into the vinegar, olive oil, salt & pepper. Chopped mint leaves are added on the tomatoes before serving.
The vanilla adds a great flavor but is not overwhelming. As I mention in my IGTV video, I like to ask people to guess what’s in the vinaigrette. While some friends have noticed the raspberry vinegar, no one has yet imagined the presence of vanilla. (No one will ask “What’s vanilla doing in my tomato salad?”)
2. Grated Carrot Salad:
This is a weeknight staple:
Grated carrots (I use a box grater)
For the vinaigrette whisk together:
Add a dash of Tahitian vanilla powder or pure extract to the lemon juice
Add olive oil, salt & pepper
-Black pepper from Madagascar (Voatsiperifery) instead of regular black pepper. Its exotic woody aromas give a delicious twist to this simple recipe.
-Fresh cilantro (coriander) leaves add another dimension to the carrots.
Tahitian vanilla is a natural addition to simple meals, but it makes a big difference.
Try the two simple recipes above. Your kids might even enjoy eating their veggies. It’s not just for desserts anymore!
Below are 2 suppliers for Tahitian vanilla:
1. In the U.S. is Nielsen-Massey have vanilla from several origins and in different forms, from extracts to powders. You can find them on Amazon.
2. The vanilla I use is from Tahiti Vanille by Alain Abel, a highly awarded specialist in Tahitian vanilla. You can find his products here: https://www.tahiti-vanille.com/en/
And now you: Have you used vanilla in cooking besides desserts?
Photo Courtesy of Unsplash.com