Spilling the beans

Due to the insanely intensive labor during all phases of production, it’s the second most expensive spice in the world.  The plant only blooms for a few hours which is the sole period that pollination’s possible.  Most of the time it’s done by hand, because the one species of bee that can pollinate it is only found in one small spot on the globe. Then the pod must stay on the plant for nine more months.

After harvesting it’s necessary to literally kill it with either wet or dry heat.  Curing is the next step, which has many arduous steps and takes many long months.

The Totonacs of the Vera Cruz region of Mexico were the original producers.  The Aztecs conquered them and took control.  Then some Eurotrash dude named Cortez showed up and stole it, along with most everything else.

He called it little vine, or in Spanish, vanilla.

For 80 years, royalty and the mega-rich enjoyed it as an ingredient in drinking chocolate.  In 1602 Queen Elizabeth’s pharmacist, Hugh Morgan suggested using it by itself as a flavoring.  And the rest is delicious, delicious history.

“Hey, I’ve got an idea for a new Ben & Jerry’s flavor…”

Far from basic and boring, vanilla has over 250 natural flavor and fragrance components.  Plus it just makes everything taste so darn good.  And despite conventional wisdom, it not only works in desserts, vanilla adds spectacular flavor to savory foods and beverages.

Serve this drink at your next cook-out, and the ribs won’t be all they’re talking about.  And if you want to make an adult version with a shot of vodka in each glass, who am I to judge?

Vanilla Bean Lemonade

1 cup sugar

3 cups water

3 teaspoons vanilla bean paste or vanilla extract

Juice of 3 large lemons


Put water and sugar into saucepan.  Bring to simmer.  Whisk in vanilla.  Remove from heat.  Stir in lemon juice.

Strain hot syrup over 6 cups ice cubes, allowing them to melt down.  Serve over ice in a tall lemon-garnished glass.  6 servings.

With all the lemons around, you’re going to have a boat-load of lemon zest available.  The Kid loves my vanilla bean shortbread.  I’ve recently come up with a variation which is rich, buttery, and not too sweet.  It’s spiked with lemon zest and freshly grated nutmeg.  I discovered this tasty combination on a field trip to Old Salem with The Kid.

Brothers’ House Shortbread


3 cups all-purpose flour

3/4 cup sugar

1 tsp salt

1 cup butter, chilled

Seeds from 1 vanilla bean

2 tablespoons lemon zest

¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

Preheat oven to 350F.

In the bowl of a food processor, combine flour, sugar and salt. Pulse a few times to blend.

Cut butter into large chunks and add to food processor along with vanilla, zest, and nutmeg. Pulse about 15-20 times, or until dough has a wet sand appearance and starts to clump together.  Pour into ungreased 9-inch square pan and spread into even layer. Use a measuring cup to press it down firmly, creating a smooth, compact surface.

Carefully slice with a knife, 4 rows by 8 rows, patting down any dough crumbs that are raised.

Bake 30-35 minutes, until shortbread is lightly browned all over.

While the shortbread is still hot, dock each slice with a fork.  This gives it an authentic Scottish shortbread look.  After 10 minutes or so, gently remove pieces and let fully cool on a wire rack.

Store in airtight container. 

My final recipe is a ham glaze.

Vanilla bean glaze

3 cups apple juice

1 vanilla bean

¼ cup Dijon mustard

2 tablespoons Balsamic vinegar

1 tablespoon soy sauce

¼ teaspoon Chinese five spice powder

½ teaspoon dry thyme

Pinch of salt & pepper

Scrape the seeds from the pod and set aside.  Put apple juice in saucepan along with emptied pod and bring to a boil.  Reduce until it has a syrupy thickness.  Stir in vanilla seeds. 

Take off heat and whisk in rest of ingredients.  Refrigerate overnight. 

Enough glaze for one large ham.

So think about using vanilla in more dishes.  I suppose it’s possible to over-do it with that yummy pod, but I haven’t figured out how.

Thanks for your time.

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