Around this time last year, we rounded up some of our Hey Chef panelists and asked them to share their favorite vanilla bean applications. They talked about infused sugars, vanilla ricotta, and smoked ice cream. But since you requested some savory applications, too, we got a whole new group together to help us fold those beans and pods into dishes that lean far from sweet. Here's what they had to say.
Light but Rich Foie Gras
Thiago Silva is the pastry chef at EMM Group's Catch in New York's Meatpacking District. He is a 2015 Dessert Professional Top 10 Pastry Chef and recently won the Food Network's Chopped, donating his winnings to C-CAP (Careers through Culinary Arts Program).
I use vanilla when soaking liver to make a foie gras torchon. Most people soak their foie gras in milk to leach out a bit of blood, but I like to simmer the milk with vanilla first. Once it's cooled, I soak the liver in the infused milk to add another note of flavor—it's subtle, but definitely new and unexpected. Vanilla enhances the smooth, creamy texture of foie gras, making it somehow both lighter and richer at once.
Since first learning to cook at his father's restaurant at age 11, Chef Michele Brogioni developed a passion for creating dishes in his native Italy that would lead him to over 20 years of culinary experience and earn him a Michelin star as head chef at Relais & Châteaux's Il Falconiere in Cortona, Italy. As head chef of Maison Dellos Catering, he's cooked for U.S. presidents and other heads of state from around the world. He is currently executive chef at iconic Italian restaurant The Leopard at des Artistes in New York City.
Try adding vanilla to your mashed potatoes—rather than using butter, make the mashed potatoes with extra-virgin olive oil, lime juice, cilantro, and some vanilla. It's perfect with some roasted fish, like sea bass fillets roasted on charcoal. The lime and the cilantro are a refreshing combination, and the vanilla gives a sweetness that balances the olive oil, which can be spicy and bitter at the same time. It's really, really nice.
Chef Lisa Garza-Selcer's passion for Southern culture and its culinary heritage stems from her upbringing in the Mississippi Delta, which serves as the inspiration for her Dallas restaurant, Sissy's Southern Kitchen & Bar, and the upcoming Shelby Hall.
My biggest thing with vanilla in savory applications is that you have to use whole vanilla. Vanilla concentrate with alcohol is just too much; it overpowers. You want the vanilla to be an element, not to consume the dish—if I have a beautiful roasted fish, I don't want to detract from that great product.
So I love fish roasted in parchment or a cast iron skillet with vanilla beans. Snapper and grouper work really well, especially with some wild ramps and chives. Thinly slice some aromatic vegetables on a mandoline—layered with fish, they're beautiful—and then just let it roast. You get that hint of vanilla, which adds layers without overpowering the dish.
Lobster Bake Browned Butter
Classically trained in Italy, Amalia Scatena uses refined Mediterranean techniques, seasonal ingredients, and local products at her Charleston newcomer, Cannon Green.
Lobster or shellfish is delicious served with a simple brown butter with a little vanilla bean in it. It's a great trick for your next lobster bake, for instance.
Black Pepper Vinaigrette
Coby Lee Ming, the executive chef at Harvest in Louisville, Kentucky, sits on the chef advisory board of the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival and helped Harvest get to the semi-finalist stage for the James Beard Foundation's "Best New Restaurant in America" award.
I once made a vanilla and black pepper oil to use in a vinaigrette for a really nice crabmeat dish. Start with a couple of quality pods, split them, scrape them, and add a coarse grind of black peppercorns. Put everything in a small pot, cover it with a neutral oil like canola or grapeseed, and gently heat it up to 180°F. Turn it off, let it sit for four hours, and strain it. You still get the vanilla seeds, infused into an intensely flavored peppery oil. Then just mix together light red wine vinegar and a touch of honey, and slowly whisk in the oil. It's unbelievably delicious. Pair it with fruits like mango or peach—something that balances the vanilla and black pepper.
Chef Charles Zhuo started cooking at Austin's Barley Swine in February 2013 and has worked his way up to the title of co–sous chef. With co–sous chef Bradley Nicholson, he creates a 14-course tasting menu based on what's available from local farms. Zhuo also oversees fermentation projects, from fish sauce to yogurt to tempeh.
Vanilla tastes really good! It smells really good! It enhances sweetness and makes savory dishes sweeter without adding any sugar, which is nice.
We make a vanilla mayonnaise for our sunchoke tots, which are kind of like tater tots but made with sunchokes. For me, it's natural to connect things that taste good. What's good with tater tots? Ketchup—or mayonnaise, which they do more of in Europe. But sunchokes are also great with brown butter—they have this super-nutty taste, and the flavor and smell are incredible. If you caramelize them, they almost smell like hot chocolate. Usually there's vanilla extract in hot chocolate. So what's good with sunchoke tots? Vanilla mayonnaise!
To start, combine eight egg yolks, 15 grams of honey, 100 grams rice wine vinegar or apple cider vinegar, six grams of salt, and the flesh of three vanilla beans (save the pods), and set it aside. Then take those reserved vanilla pods and add them to 600 grams of a neutral oil, like canola, along with the zest of two grapefruits—some citrus is always nice in mayonnaise. We developed this recipe in winter, when grapefruit was the most abundant citrus for us, but a similar amount of orange zest or Meyer lemon zest would work as well.
At the restaurant, we use a sous-vide circulator to heat the oil, zest, and vanilla pods; at home, you can instead put the mixture in the oven on the lowest setting, cover it, and let it go for an hour or so. Then, simply strain the solids out of the oil and continue making the mayo, drizzling the now-infused oil into the wet ingredients while whisking the whole time. Or do it in a blender or food processor. It's so good.