Ingredient: Vanilla

There’s nothing plain about this tropical flavour when it’s used in savoury dishes

When Carole Amerongen took over The Dish Bistro in 1996, she had no formal training, but she had been working in restaurants since she was 18. She also had a love for inventive cooking, learning recipes from cookbooks and the Internet. In 2003, she saw a recipe for a peppercorn, raspberry and vanilla vinaigrette. It intrigued her, but she had her doubts about a salad dish with vanilla.

“I don’t know why I thought it was a good idea. I didn’t even think I would like it,” Amerongen says. “We just put it on as a special at first to see what would happen, and it just took off from there.”

Amerongen’s regular diners loved The Dish’s spinach salad mixed with either shrimp or chicken and topped with roasted pecans, candied red onion, feta cheese and the peppercorn raspberry vanilla vinaigrette. The pure vanilla extract in the dressing wound up being a versatile flavour she never expected could be used for such a dish, which outsells the Caesar salad.

Pricey Spice

More restaurants are looking to vanilla, even using it for savoury dishes. And, though vanilla is grown in many warm-weather parts of the world, it’s not readily available in Edmonton, driving up the price.

“Vanilla is the second-most expensive spice in the world, next to saffron,” explains Amanda Van Unen, manager at Duchess Bake Shop and Provisions. Since opening in 2011, Duchess has been importing different varieties of vanilla through Nielsen-Massey, a distributor based in Illinois. Duchess carries such raw beans as Madagascar vanilla, which has a bourbon undertone to the taste, and Mexican vanilla, which has a spicier taste.

Though Duchess’s customers tend to buy vanilla for sweet baked goods – and, for one Duchess regular, to infuse vodka – Van Unen has seen it used for savoury dishes like a rhubarb compote to top pork chops or a citrus-mango salsa. She says that, even though vanilla can stand on its own, it works very nicely to bring out flavours in other things.

Versatile Vanilla

Erja Merivirta never used vanilla in anything other than desserts before joining the team at Kelly’s Pub on 104th Street in 2012. He was named kitchen manager in 2013, which was also when he was introduced to the idea of adding vanilla sugar to the pub’s sweet potato fries.

“I was definitely hesitant at first,” Merivirta says. “But I thought about it and it was really interesting. It really enhanced the flavour of the sweet potato fries but wasn’t a huge flavour profile change.”

Merivirta adds whole vanilla beans to white sugar, allowing it to absorb the vanilla flavour, before sprinkling it on top of the fries. Despite any trepidations Merivirta initially harboured, he now agrees that vanilla is a surprisingly versatile ingredient.

“If you can get it into a savoury dish, it’s worthwhile,” Merivirta says. “It’s a flavour that everyone loves and it’s great for bringing out a lot of flavours in savoury dishes.”


Peppercorn, Raspberry and Vanilla Vinaigrette

Courtesy of Carol Amerongen, The Dish Bistro 

1/2 cup red wine vinegar

1 cup canola oil

1 tbsp dry oregano

1 tbsp dry basil

1 tbsp salt

1 tsp pepper

3 tbsp dijon mustard

1 cup frozen raspberries

1 1/2 cups apple juice

3 tbsp pure vanilla extract

Combine all ingredients in a large bowl and mix well with an immersion blender.

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