Updated July 2010.
For the longest time, I thought that life was either-or.
Coffee or tea.
Ketchup or mustard.
Briefs or boxers.
The ultimate either-or, chocolate or vanilla, turns out to be no choice at all. Almost every dish that calls for chocolate asks for a bit of vanilla to provide a necessary counterpoint, to enhance and balance the flavor. Chocolate needs vanilla, but vanilla can stand on its own.
To solve the mystery of this one-sided relationship, I went searching for the source: the vanilla bean. (Surprise — I found in my pantry not one, but two, vanilla beans, one of which my Cousin Martin brought from his travels in Tahiti.) And then I called my friend Cindy Salvato, an executive pastry chef, who explained that originally cacao beans were ground together with vanilla beans, so it's likely that our collective taste buds have come to prefer the slightly vanilla-ized taste of chocolate.
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 forth during the drying-and-sweating process as the pods ferment. Five pounds of fresh pods will yield one pound of cured vanilla beans.
Vanilla beans vary in quality and in flavor, according to country of origin. The price ranges from 50 cents to one dollar or more per bean. Store your vanilla beans in an airtight container, away from light. They'll keep for two years or more, and can be used over and over.
Make your own vanilla sugar by simply placing the vanilla bean in a container of sugar (how hard is that?). Make your own vanilla extract by adding the pod to vodka, and letting it steep for several months (not much harder than making the sugar).
Though most often associated with sweet, vanilla actually pairs well with savory dishes, especially fish and shellfish, black beans and root vegetables. And yes, it's pretty good with chocolate, too.
Where do you put your vanilla beans?
Chocolate sorbet with vanilla-orange sauce
This dessert has become a favorite in our household. Make this several hours before dinner, or even the day before. Use orange gelato or vanilla frozen yogurt, if you prefer. Serves 6.
6 oranges, any type
1 vanilla bean
2 pints of your favorite chocolate sorbet or gelato (we like Gaga's Sherbetter)
A few mint leaves, for garnish
Slice off one end of the orange to make an opening large enough for a spoon. Holding each orange over a bowl, hollow out the insides, leaving an empty orange "cup"; remove each segment from the membrane, and add the segments to the bowl with the juice. Add the vanilla bean to the bowl, making sure it is submerged in the orange juice, and set aside until ready to serve (can be done several hours in advance, or even the day before).
If necessary, cut a tiny slice off the bottom of each orange to allow it to sit on a plate without rolling around. Fill each orange with chocolate sorbet or gelato. Place the filled oranges on a sheet pan lined with parchment paper, and place in the freezer until ready to serve.
Bring oranges out of the freezer 10 minutes before serving. Top each with the vanilla-flavored orange segments, and pour some of the orange juice over the top. Add a mint leaf for garnish.
Other recipes that use vanilla beans:
Petite vanilla bean scones, from The Pioneer Woman Cooks
Vanilla mashed sweet potatoes, from 101 Cookbooks
Vanilla bean cheesecake bars, from Baking Bites
Orange and vanilla bean oatmeal, from The Pink Apron
Butternut squash and vanilla soup, from Chocolate & Zucchini
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