Chefs use vanilla in bold dishes

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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 bret.thorn@penton.com.
Follow him on Twitter: @foodwriterdiary