By Naini Setalvad
Discover the aromatic brilliance of fresh vanilla, and use it to flavour dishes and beverages, says Naini Setalvad
Have you ever thought of what gives flavour to the vanilla ice-cream? Well, it’s the vanilla extract. But where does this vanilla come from? I was amazed when I was pointed out to a long slender, brown-black French bean lookalike while walking in the coffee estates of Coorg. I broke a part of it and inhaled the lovely fragrance of vanilla. The South of India is fast rising as a major producer of vanilla.
This plant originated from Mexico and is native to Central America. The Totonaca Indians of Southern Mexico discovered it, and referred to it as God’s food. Safeguarding its use, they infused this herb in rituals, perfumes and medicines. It is the only member of the orchid family that’s edible. After conquering the Totonacas, the Aztecs adopted their customs, and used vanilla as a flavouring agent in chocolates. After the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs, vanilla came to Spain, and then spread to the rest of the world.
Vanilla is most commonly found in sweet dishes, though it is not sweet on its own. In Africa and most of the tropical areas, vanilla is most frequently used in savoury stews. Western chefs use this tasty spice in sauces on entrée menus.
Vanilla was first used as a culinary spice in confections by Europeans in the 17th century.
The French probably appreciated the full potential of this bean, and used it not only to enhance
their coffee, savouries, and desserts, but also perfumes and tobacco. Today, it is ubiquitous as a flavouring agent in pie filling, ice-creams, cakes, mousses, soufflés, rice desserts, cookies, and even alcoholic drinks. Add vanilla to fruit compotes featuring apples, gooseberries and rhubarb. French vanilla, also known as bourbon vanilla, is the best bean with the strongest aroma.
The benefits of vanilla are immense. It is known to cure and keep people healthy. Today, vanilla has been identified as the world’s most ubiquitous and accepted flavour with a fragrance that is rejuvenating and relaxing. It helps those suffering from claustrophobia. Exposure to vanilla aromatherapy lowers stress levels. It is also considered an aphrodisiac. Studies point out the benefits of vanilla in weight loss too.
More than 200 bioactive plant compounds have been discovered in vanilla. Thai scientists have found that vanilla can prevent cancer cells from metastating. Malaysian scientists have found that vanilla can kill human cancer cells. They declared that it could be a useful colorectal cancer prevention agent.
Cured vanilla beans are frequently used whole, and can be blended into sauces, tea and other liquids. Even if the bean is soaked in liquid, it can still be re-used. You can rinse and dry the beans, then store in the refrigerator for one more use, or you can grind the pod with some sugar. This flavoured sugar can add more dimension to baked items and beverages.
Vanilla extract can be stored for unlimited period, with a flavour that improves over time. When selecting vanilla beans, choose ones that are fleshy and full of seeds. The pods can be stored for six months, if refrigerated in an airtight container. If the pod has dried before you could use it, you can grind it and use it to flavour dishes.
If you can’t buy the beans, buy pure vanilla extract as they are rich in flavour.
Stewed vanilla apples
2 tsps organic honey
1/4 tsp cinnamon powder
2 -3 crushed walnuts
1/4 tsp vanilla pods
o Peel the apple and cut into four pieces.
o Put the apple pieces and vanilla pods in water and cook till the apples are soft.
o Allow it to cool.
o Place the apples pieces on a plate.
o Sprinkle cinnamon powder, honey and crushed walnut over it and serve.
Vanilla coffee drink
1 tsp instant coffee
A pinch of dried vanilla pods powder
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup water
1 sachet stevia
o Blend together milk, water, coffee, vanilla powder, stevia and a few crushed pieces of ice till it become little fluffy.
o Pour it in a glass and enjoy the fluffy cold coffee.
3 slices pineapple
A pinch of dried vanilla pods powder
1/4 glass water or crushed ice
o Blend together banana, pineapple, vanilla powder and water or crushed ice. Garnish with pineapple slice and serve.
About the Author: Naini Setalvad is a nutritionist, specializing in lifestyle and immunity disorders. Her foundation, Health For You, throws light on healthy food habits.
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