A gift of vanilla beans gets North Fork Chef cooking

Ice cream made with Tahitian vanilla beans.
JOHN ROSS PHOTO | Ice cream made with Tahitian vanilla beans.

Karen Wells was born in Greenport in 1953, the daughter of a bunker fisherman by the name of Mason Wells. After graduating from Southold High School in 1972, she and a couple of friends went backpacking around Europe for a couple of years. In 1981 she took a trip to the Caribbean island of St. Thomas and ended up signing on the locally famous schooner Rachel and Ebenezer as the cook for the return trip to Greenport. Thus began a career as a seagoing chef that lasted the next 27 years.

Former seagoing chef Karen Wells.
JOHN ROSS PHOTO | Former seagoing chef Karen Wells.

Karen cooked on a number of private luxury yachts and traveled the world. She has crossed the Atlantic, the Pacific, the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea, the Mediterranean and the Caribbean. She has passed through the Suez and Panama canals. Most recently, she just returned from Tahiti and its surrounding Society Islands. It was on one of these islands, Tahaa, that she visited the famous vanilla plantation that produces some of the world’s finest vanilla beans. And it was from this island that she brought me a package of those aromatic beans as a gift. This article and its recipes emanated from those beans.

Vanilla is one of the most desirable flavors in the culinary world. It is an essence that comes from vanilla orchids native to Mesoamerica. The Aztecs are thought to be the first people to use the essence of vanilla as a flavoring for their cocoa drinks. Today, Madagascar is the world’s largest producer, but Indonesia, Mexico and Tahiti also export vanilla. Tahitian vanilla is the most aromatic and has a soft, flowery aroma reminiscent of root beer.

Vanilla is the second most expensive spice, behind saffron. This is because vanilla has to be hand pollinated during a very short window of time, as the flower only lasts one day. The seed pod that develops takes nine months to mature. After harvest, the pods have to be heated to stop further growth. Then they have to be cured for the next five months, using a very labor-intensive process. Finally, they are placed in chests to cure like a fine wine.

I used to believe that vanilla was vanilla, and it didn’t make much difference whether you used beans, pure extract or even imitation vanilla. What I have discovered is that vanilla is indeed like wine; a cheap jug wine has a coarse taste and no aroma while a fine hand-crafted vintage wine has a delicious bouquet and many subtle nuances of flavor to follow.

One of the purest ways to enjoy the vanilla bean is to make homemade vanilla ice cream.

Vanilla Ice Cream
Combine 2 cups heavy cream, 1 cup whole milk, 3/4 cup sugar and 1/8 teaspoon salt in a saucepan. Cut a vanilla bean in half and split each half lengthwise. Using a small knife, scrape out the seeds into the cream mixture and toss the pods in as well. Bring slowly to a boil, stirring with a wooden spoon.

In a separate bowl, whisk two large eggs and gradually whisk 1/2 cup of the hot cream into the eggs. Now pour the egg mixture slowly back into the saucepan, whisking constantly. Cook on medium heat until the custard thickens lightly and reaches a temperature of 175 degrees. Strain the custard through a sieve and refrigerate overnight. (Do not throw out the used vanilla pods, as they make great vanilla sugar when dried and placed in a sealed jar of sugar.) Also be sure to place the bowl of your ice cream maker in the freezer overnight. The next day, start the ice cream maker with its frozen insulated bowl and pour in the chilled custard. Allow it to run for 20 minutes, as it will thicken to a desirable consistency. Serve immediately or place in an airtight container for freezer storage.

Makes about 1 1/2 quarts.

Caramel Rum Pineapple Sauce
Cut a whole fresh pineapple into bite-sized chunks. Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a large sauté pan and stir in 1/4 cup dark brown sugar. When sugar dissolves, add 1/4 cup dark Myers’s rum and a vanilla bean that has been split and scraped. Add the pineapple chunks and place over high heat, stirring occasionally. The pineapple will throw off a fair amount of liquid and the high heat will evaporate the liquid and caramelize the sugar. When the mixture is almost dry, remove it from the heat and cool. Serve over vanilla ice cream.

Coconut Vanilla Sea Scallops
Purchase 1 pound of fresh sea scallops. If they are large, split them in half horizontally. Season them with 1 teaspoon sea salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Heat a large sauté pan over high heat and add 2 tablespoons canola oil. When it shimmers, add the scallops one at a time and do not crowd them. Turn them quickly and remove as soon as they are golden brown on one side. Do not overcook.

Reduce the heat, pour off any excess oil and add 1/2 cup dark rum to the pan along with 1 split vanilla pod. Reduce by half and stir in 1 cup heavy cream and 1/2 cup coconut milk. Reduce again by half and remove the vanilla pods. Add back the sea scallops and check for seasoning. Serve over rice.

Serves 4.

John Ross, a chef and author, has been an active part of the North Fork food and wine community for more than 35 years. Email: [email protected].

Vanilla beans curing in the sun on the island of Tahaa, one of the many islands surrounding Tahiti, and the primary source of Tahitian vanilla.
KAREN WELLS PHOTO | Vanilla beans curing in the sun on the island of Tahaa, one of the many islands surrounding Tahiti, and the primary source of Tahitian vanilla.