Welcome to Spice World, in which Gut Check zeroes in on overlooked spices from around the globe, introducing those you may not own -- and probably should.
History: We've got the ancient Aztecs to thank for lots of long words ending in "atl," awesome mythology and the patience to figure out how to cultivate vanilla -- a particularly difficult flavor to come by. The pods are the fruit of an orchid plant (Vanilla planifolia), and they have to be cured and fermented over the course of about six months. If that weren't involved enough, the high-maintenance orchid itself has to be pollinated by hand.
Vanilla beans have the slightly wrinkled, slightly sticky texture of a piece of licorice that's been left in the sun for a few minutes. Our two pieces measured seven inches.
Today: Mexico continues to be a major producer, but bourbon vanilla pods from Madagascar are considered to be the Chanel No. 5 of vanilla, valued for its rich depth of flavor. Vanilla is most commonly purchased in the form of synthetic vanilla extract; making it the "real" way for yourself is possible, provided you've got vodka, lots of vanilla beans (pricey) and about five weeks.
Most recipes call for splitting the fruit in half lengthwise and then scraping out the "beans" -- which look like teeny, tiny coffee grounds -- and tossing the rest of the pod. Other sources insist that the pods pack a bigger punch than the beans do and can be used over and over again to infuse drinks if you rinse, dry and store them properly.
In Use: We were hoping to make homemade ice cream with fresh vanilla beans, but most recipes we found called for either an ice-cream maker or for two days, luxuries Gut Check didn't have. Instead, we used them in a topping for this easy banana bread. It turned out pretty cakey but tasted good anyway.
Though real vanilla will set you back some real cash, the pods can last a long time. Plus, the rush you get scraping out the vanilla beans will have you feeling incredibly adept in the kitchen, particularly if your confidence is already heightened owing to swigs of vodka while making your own extract. A solid investment.
We found a 1.21-ounce jar of vanilla beans at Schnucks for $6.99.
What overlooked spices heat up your kitchen? E-mail Gut Check!