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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, chef 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 rubs chicken wings 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.