When I was an easily-bored teenager (is there any other kind?), my friends and I called everything that bored us vanilla.
"Oh, that's soooo vanilla" described anything from physics homework to piano lessons, to a hair style or lipstick color or having to babysit on a Saturday night.
And what did we call people who bored us, the math teacher with the monotone voice, the boy who had a reputation as a bad kisser?
We were so unkind. Vanilla deserved better.
Native to Central America, and today cultivated in Mexico, Madagascar, Tahiti and Indonesia, vanilla is the fruit of a perennial orchid. When harvested, the pods have no aroma or flavor; those qualities come out during the drying-and-sweating process as the pods ferment.
Contrary to everything I thought I knew when I was growing up, vanilla is neither the opposite of chocolate nor the absence of chocolate. In fact, the two tastes go hand-in-hand, because cacao beans often were ground together with vanilla beans, and our collective taste buds have come to prefer the slightly vanilla-ized taste of chocolate.
Store vanilla beans in an airtight container, away from light. They'll keep for two years or more, and can be used over and over; even if the beans have dried out, they often can be reconstituted in water, or ground to a powder and mixed into sugar.
Five pounds of fresh pods will yield one pound of cured vanilla beans, best used in dishes like custards, ice cream and cakes, where the liquid in the recipe helps draw the flavor from the bean. Use them when you want your dish to look vanilla, in marionberry caramel swirl ice cream or cheesecake bars or marshmallows, or to taste vanilla, in mashed sweet potatoes or white asparagus soup.
Nothing boring about that.
Pears poached in vanilla
The pears in the photo, while clearly not poached, were harvested from our own pear trees. We don't spray, so they're not the most beautiful pears in the world, but we're inordinately proud of them. This recipe, which can be varied with the addition of ginger or saffron, serves 4.
6 cups water
2 cups granulated sugar
2-3 long strips of lemon zest
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
1 star anise
4 ripe but firm Bartlett or Anjou pears
In a deep straight-sided, nonreactive saucepan, add the water, sugar, lemon zest, vanilla bean seeds and pod, and star anise and bring to a boil over high heat, stirring until sugar is completely dissolved.
Peel the pears, leaving the stem intact. Slice off just enough of the bottom of each pear to create a flat, stable base.
Reduce heat to keep poaching liquid at a bare simmer and add the pears, laying them on their sides. Gently turn the pears occasionally, and cook until they are just tender when pierced with a knife, about 6-9 minutes. Allow pears to cool completely in their poaching liquid. Stand each pear upright on a plate to serve, or transfer pears and poaching liquid to an airtight container and store in the refrigerator for up to 2 days.
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