Monday, December 3, 2007
Vanilla: bean there, done that
(Sorry about the bad pun, but there is no editor to restrain me.)
A task I look forward to every month is translating the newsletter of Olivier Roellinger, an inspired chef who is based in the fishing town of Cancale near Mont St-Michel in northern Brittany. I haven't yet found the right excuse to splurge on a meal at his restaurant Le Relais Gourmand Olivier Roellinger, but the easy-to-follow recipes he provides on his website each month provide some consolation.
Roellinger is devoted to his native region, but like anyone who has been lucky enough to grow up near the sea he always has his eye on the horizon. More than other French chefs at this lofty level, he relies on spices from afar to bring out the qualities of the extraordinary local seafood and vegetables (Cancale is where I tasted my first French oysters, an experience that spoiled me for life).
At his boutique L'Entrepôt Epices Roellinger in Cancale - as well as on his website - Roellinger sells a selection of the world's finest spices and his own blends, which have evocative names such as "Neptune Powder" and "Grand Caravan." Just a pinch of spice powder transforms the simplest preparation, giving it an unmistakeable Roellinger touch.
I always learn something from his newsletters and this month's had me so excited that the first thing I did when I finished the translation was order a large amount of the spice in question. The subject was vanilla, a spice whose sultry sweetness has long fascinated the French. Native to Mexico, where it was grown to flavor coffee and chocolate, the seedpod of this climbing orchid came to Spain in the 16th century before conquering the hearts of the French. But it wasn't until the 19th century that a technique was discovered for pollinating the flowers by hand, a task that had previously been accomplished by a bee native to Mexico.
Armed with this discovery, the French set about planting vanilla in Tahiti, Madagascar, Mauritius, Reunion and Comores. Today it also thrives in Papua New Guinea, Uganda, the Congo, Tanzania, India and Indonesia. Like coffee or chocolate, the taste can vary wildly depending on the type of vanilla and its origin. Roellinger describes Papua New Guinea's vanilla as the most sensual, making it the best match for savory dishes, while the powerful vanilla of Comores can stand up to chocolate or sweet root vegetables. You can read more about the qualities of each vanilla here.
Vanilla beans are worth ordering online, as you can easily pay less than you might at the supermarket. The vanilla that is available on Roellinger's website costs less than I would pay at my local spice shop, and there are many affordable sources on the Internet, some of which Melissa provided in her beautiful post on making your own vanilla extract. I decided on Madagascar vanilla, partly because Roellinger describes it as the best for custards, pastries and ice cream but also because I love the acidity of Madagascar chocolate. Sure enough these long, thin Bourbon vanilla beans have some of the same liveliness, which prevents their nutty sweetness from becoming overpowering.
So far I have added the vanilla to my green tomato jam and stirred it into this snow white soup, a recipe whose artful simplicity is typical of Roellinger (even if the food he serves in his Relais Gourmand is far more complex). The diced Granny Smith apple is my addition, borrowed from other French chefs such as Michel Troisgros who use it to counteract sweetness in savory dishes. There was undeniably something dessert-like about this dish, which is a bit reminiscent of semolina pudding, and next time I might serve it in small portions as an appetiser rather than in big bowls. Not that we had any trouble finishing it.
Cauliflower soup with vanilla
from Olivier Roellinger
1 small head cauliflower, chopped (about 400 g or 15 oz)
2 cups water (500 ml)
1 cup milk (250 ml)
1 vanilla bean
1 tsp fine salt
Niora oil and Poudre du Voyage for the garnish (optional)
Chop the cauliflower.
In a saucepan, combine the cauliflower, water, milk and vanilla bean, which has been opened and scraped. Bring to a boil and cook for 20 mins at a simmer, so that the mixture is reduced by about 1/3.
Blend the soup until very smooth, straining if necessary.
Pour the steaming soup into bowls.
For an optional garnish, Poudre du Voyage and Niora oil from Olivier Roellinger make the perfect complements for this dish.
This post is my entry to Weekend Herb Blogging, created by Kalyn and hosted this week by Simona from Briciole.