Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Search for the Best Vanilla

The Search for the Best Vanilla
Ok Merrie, this is for you! (and me!)

  This all started when my sister-in-law asked what kind of vanilla I used and loved.  I didn't really have an answer other than I haven't ever lived near any gourmet food stores to try different kinds.  But it sure got me thinking.  I usually turn to good old McCormick's Pure Vanilla Extract because Sam's Club carries the big bottle for $6.88 :)  But I do LOVE Vanilla Bean Paste, especially Nielson-Massey.  For those of you who haven't used it, it is just like vanilla extract but it has the little black vanilla bean seeds in it that give that great look and flavor to ice cream and puddings.  A friend of mine brought me some Mexican Vanilla from her vacation so I have tried that too. It is sweeter and has a little different flavor than other vanillas I have tried.
    With that all said, I started doing a little internet research to find out more about this amazing flavoring that is used so, so often.  I want to share with you a little of what I found.  Now, I realized that my search was internet based and therefore may not be the most reliable but I am on a mission to find out just what is the best, and what I may have been missing.
  First things first, vanilla extract should be a dark amber color.  If it is any other color (clear, foggy, milky) know that it is NOT real vanilla but rather synthetic.  There are many countries that vanilla comes from.  A few are: Tahiti, Mexico, Madagascar (are these all countries? I know I am LAME for not knowing!).  Hawaii is the ONLY place in the US that grows and produces their own vanilla extract.  It seems to me that Mexican vanilla is one of the more popular kinds.  There is a big warning out there about Mexican vanilla and it sure caught my attention.  Much of the mexican vanilla (found outside the US) is derived from couramin which is the bean from a Brazilian tonka bean.  While this bean has a very similar taste to vanilla, it is NOT vanilla and the process it goes through actually makes it TOXIC! It has been know to cause liver damage and is also a carcinogen.  Couramin is used extensively in Mexico to produce vanilla.  The US banned couramin laced products back in the 1950's but they still get in.  If you are buying vanilla in Mexico or Mexican vanilla anywhere else, make sure it is clearly labeled "couramin-free".
   Many of the vanilla extracts that find their way into the US are synthetic. The best way to determine quality is based on price.  If they are selling a large bottle for a bargain price it is almost assuredly synthetic.  Another tell-tale sigh is the color. Is the vanilla is foggy, or in anyway NOT dark amber it was probably made through a process using coal tar or from red and brown food coloring.
    Ok, now that I have put all that out there (please don't hate me if I have some faulty info, this is internet research, remember?) I want your opinion.

What is your favorite brand/type of vanilla?

I am excited to find and try some new stuff!  Ok, GO!

Vanilla sites:

Caprese Grilled Cheese

I have always loved caprese salad.  The fresh flavors are just amazing.  And grilled cheese is one of my favorite things to have for lunch, so I decided to combine the two.  I used provolone cheese instead of the typical fresh mozzarella but this sandwich is so delish, I have had it a few times this week and thought I would share the love! 

Caprese Grilled Cheese

2 slices sourdough bread
2 slices provolone cheese
4 leaves fresh basil, sliced thin
4 slices fresh Roma tomatoes

Balsamic vinegar and olive oil - for dipping

Assemble sandwich with cheese, tomato, and basil.  Butter the outside of the bread and grill on a hot griddle until the cheese is melted and the bread is golden.  ( Placing a lid over the sandwich as it cooks helps the cheese to melt without burning the bread). Mix balsamic vinegar and oil together to dip the grilled cheese in!

P.S. I found a living basil plant in my grocery store and all you need is a jar or cup and some water to keep it going!  I have had this plant for about a month and it is growing strong!  I LOVE having fresh basil at my finger tips during these winter months! And it makes my kitchen so bring and spring-y!
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