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Weekend Herb Blogging: Vanilla

Weekend Herb Blogging is Kalyn's weekly venture into the land of herbs and always offers a collection of international food writers weighing in with delightful ideas for using the goodness that is fresh herbs. This week's edition of Weekend Herb Blogging is being guest-hosted at The Cooking Adventures of Chef Paz, where Paz kicks it off in style with a Chickpea Feta Coriander Salad from Falling Cloudberries.

Vanillaoffering_1 Vanilla. Plain old vanilla. People say it like it's a bad thing, a word that's meant to conjure a flavor barely worthy of mention. Bland. Boring. Vanilla.  Pat Boone has described hiimself as a "vanilla sounding artist." Bland. Boring. White bread. Heck, if white bread had a flavor besides white it would be vanilla. There's vanilla computer configurations, which are boring and basic, there's even vanilla sex. Well, I guess that last is not so far off; the very word vanilla is derived from the Latin for vagina. (file under: odd facts I learned today)

Our last house was painted a warm off-cream color called Pudding, the vanilla pudding was implied, but it was clearly the intent of the name. It was a color you would be happy to see in a vanilla custard; opaquely thick, barely off-white with the merest hint of color from beaten in egg yolks. It wasn't chocolate pudding, or butterscotch, or even banana. Had the paint manufacturer been smarter, they would have been direct and called it Vanilla — which is ever so much lusher than "pudding" and probably worth an extra buck a gallon.

Anyone with a wee bit of search skills can turn up some "vanilla" things that are anything but bland, boring, vanilla. Case in point: The Vanilla Tapes. Not exactly bland and boring. Neither is real vanilla.

Unfortunately for the bakers amongst us, vanilla has been stupidly expensive for a while, driving some people to skip it as an ingredient and others to try vanillin — a truly dreadful option! I used to drive by a plant that manufactured vanillin and it was the most amazing aroma. The vanillin plant sat next to a river and the scent wafted across the water and hung there, lending a certain cozy feeling to being stuck at the traffic light. The thing is — do you know how they make vanillin? It's a by-product of the paper industry, a way to use the waste from pulp mills. Doesn't that sound yummy?

Fortunately, ghastly expensive vanilla is no longer the case. In fact, I've got about 3/4 of a pound of vanilla beans in the pantry right now. Cost me about 25 bucks, maybe a couple more with shipping. My secret source? Ebay! There are several stores selling vanilla beans, many with a "buy it now" option (skip that) and some being auctioned. The auctions are where the deals are. My beans came in 4 packages (a 1/4 lb and a 20-25 bean package each of Tahitian and Bourbon beans) and I'll probably watch for a few more great deals and snag more to store against the next shortage. I've heard good things about several of the ebay vendors so I chose the vendor who was closest to me; oddly, I don't see any auctions by them at the moment.

I have plans for vanilla extract (made with 151 proof rum), vanilla sugar, and all sorts of desserts. A single bean that was scraped and tossed into a sugar syrup while it boiled for mashmallows sits on the counter, its crystallized glaze sparkling in the sunlight; it will be chopped into shards and sprinkled on something soon. There are also some savory dishes I've encountered over the past few years that I've noted for a time when I could afford to buy more than one precious bean at a time. Now is that time.

With myriad uses for the slender bean, I'm almost embarassed to admit the first thing I made after the first fat envelope of wondrous aroma arrived: whipped cream with a bean split and scraped into it. Plain. Simple. Vanilla. And anything but boring.

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