No longer relegated to dessert, vanilla is enhancing savory dishes from seafood to poultry
In modern slang, “vanilla” is used to describe something that’s plain, unimaginative or boring, but that’s not how many chefs look at this common flavoring.
“While people don’t think of vanilla as assertive, it certainly is, and can stand up to a lot of other ingredients,” said Jason McClure,of Sazerac restaurant in Seattle and one of many chefs who like to use the flavor in savory dishes.
“Vanilla’s got natural oils that have great aroma, and it complements spicy flavors, and is nice against salt as well,” he said.
He rubswings with a blend of ancho chilies, brown sugar, vanilla and salt before curing them for two days, then smoking them for two hours and finishing them on a grill. A plate of five of them sells for $9.
McClure said he also uses that rub for smoked pork ribs.
Seafood and vanilla are also a popular combination in dishes such as the Gulf crab fritters at Bacchanalia in Atlanta. The dish combines blue crab with Thai chiles, garlic, avocado, Asian pear and grapefruit.
“I think vanilla rounds it out,” executive chef Daniel Porubiansky said.
Porubiansky mixes the crab with mayonnaise, lemon juice and salt, then rolls balls of that mixture in panko breadcrumbs and deep fries it and serves it with a sauce. He makes the sauce by pureeing garlic and Thai bird chiles, letting the mixture sit for a week and a half, straining it, and then blending the liquid with maple syrup and fish sauce. He dresses the plate with grapefruit, avocado, vanilla oil and vanilla salt. The dish, which is not currently on the menu, usually sells for $18.
Porubiansky makes vanilla oil by splitting open a vanilla pod, scraping out the seeds and putting both the pod and seeds in about two cups of grapeseed oil. He lets the mixture steep in an immersion circulator set at around 68 degrees Centigrade.
His vanilla salt is made by lining a hotel pan with old scraped pods topped with fleur de sel and letting the mixture dry until the salt takes on some of the vanilla’s brown color.
“We’ll rub a little vanilla oil in our foie gras, and we’ll put a little vanilla bean in an apple or pear purée,” he said. “It rounds it out, and to me it’s kind of sensual.”
“Vanilla hits on the lower notes of flavor, and it carries a lot of other flavors,” said Harper McClure, chef of the Federalist in Washington, D.C., who has no relation to Jason McClure.
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He said that vanilla’s long-lasting, palate-coating quality combines particularly well with citrus and salt. “It just kind of dances on the tongue,” he said.
In the autumn, when Florida and Georgia citrus arrives, Harper McClure makes a dish of scallops, grapefruit, blood orange and Satsuma mandarins if he can get them. He tops that with shaved fennel and serves it with a vanilla beurre blanc for $29.
To make the beurre blanc, he takes half a scraped vanilla pod and adds it to a white wine reduction. After it reduces, he strains it and adds the vanilla seeds “to give it that vanilla-flecked appearance, but honestly most of the flavor comes from the pod being added to the reduction,” he said.
Vanilla is technically a spice, and it’s the world’s second-most expensive one, after saffron.
As avant-garde as vanilla and seafood might sound, it’s nothing new, said Michael Lachowicz, chef-owner of restaurant Michael in Winnetka, Ill.
“Every chef thinks they are reinventing the culinary wheel. However, Escoffier was doing vanilla crème on Dover sole about 100 years ago,” he said. “Vanilla is like saffron inasmuch as they are both wildly expensive and they both lend themselves to extraordinary and disastrous partnerships with other ingredients."
Lachowicz likes to pair vanilla with shellfish, as well as delicately flavored fish such as sole and pike. He said he also likes to add it to fennel gratin and sweet potato dishes, but not to potatoes.
“The starch in regular potatoes makes vanilla kind of clunky and heavy,” he said. “A vanilla fennel purée finished with a sprinkle of Saigon cinnamon and a bit of crème fraîche under a perfectly sautéed piece of flounder is just sexy. There is no better way to describe the overwhelming mouthfeel of such a dish.”
Jay Swift, chef of 4th & Swift in Atlanta, used vanilla in a vegetarian dish this past spring.
For an asparagus salad, Swift heated olive oil and a split vanilla bean in a pan to about 160 degrees Fahrenheit. Then he added relatively thick, peeled asparagus spears and cooked them for just a few minutes, “until just tender,” he said.
Swift chilled the asparagus and then served it with shaved fennel, parsley leaves, citrus segments — generally grapefruit — and a dressing of cider vinegar and lemon juice emulsified with the vanilla-infused olive oil, and seasoned with salt, pepper and some minced shallot. It sold for $9.
“Vanilla really goes well with the greenness of the asparagus,” he said. “It softens that vegetal, minerally thing that asparagus has.”
Contact Bret Thorn at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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