Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Vanilla - Herb of the Week

Vanilla Beans are the fruit of an orchid.  I am not sure that counts as a true herb, but since it does fall into the edible and useful aspect of a plant I thought it was appropriate.

I first learned that vanilla was an orchid when I first attended the orchid show at the Chicago Botanic Garden a few years ago. The Orchid show is always in the winter and this year runs from Feb. 10 to March 26, 2017.

Vanilla orchid display at Chicago Botanic Garden

I recommend traveling to it if you are anywhere near the Chicagoland area while the show is open.  It is colorful, amazing and might just scratch that itching to garden issue one tends to have in the winter months.

The family of  orchid that makes vanilla is actually Vanilla.  The most common for industrial food production is Vanilla planifolia, or flat leaved VanillaThe orchid flowers for 1 day, then creates a long narrow pod that takes 6 to 9 months to mature, and another 3 to 6 months to cure.  You can see why vanilla can be expensive.

Vanilla can only grow 10 to 20 degrees north and south of the equator, so while the major species of vanilla orchids are now grown around the world, they originally came from Mesoamerica, including parts of modern day Mexico and Guatemala. Like all orchids, vanilla is a vine.  It can grow up to 30 feet long. The Flat-Leaved Vanilla is the only orchid used for industrial food production. The vanilla pod is frequently referred to as the bean. The pods are picked when they are still not ripe, and then plunged into hot water and laid out to dry for anywhere from two to six months. While these pods can be very expensive, scraping them yields a potent vanilla flavor and the black specs that will color whatever you’re baking. They’re definitely worth the splurge. Like saffron, vanilla is very labor intensive to produce. In order for vanilla orchids to produce pods, the plant must be pollinated by hummingbirds or a specific species of bees native to Central America. Furthermore, the flowers are only open for a short period of time. In order to harvest vanilla commercially, therefore, the plants must be hand-pollinated.  Most vanilla today comes from Madagascar and the island of Réunion Seventy-five percent of vanilla on the market today is derived from vanilla plants in Madagascar and Réunion. It is commonly known as Bourbon vanilla, named for the island Réunion, which was formally named Île Bourbon.

Flat-leaf vanilla
Vanilla extract, the way most of us know vanilla, comes from macerating vanilla beans and mixing them with water and alcohol. 

Beyond the wonderful flavors that vanilla imparts to baking, you can also add it to beauty items with great benefit.

An infusion of vanilla and witch hazel can be used as a skin toner that will reduce pore size and decrease puffiness around the eyes.

Vanilla Toner
2 vanilla beans
8 ounces of witch hazel
   (an astringent available in a drug store or drug store section of a department store)

Slice the beans lengthwise and cut into small pieces.  Place in a glass jar and cover with witch hazel extract.  Shape well.  Store in a cool dark place for 2 weeks and shake daily.  Strain out the vanilla and place liquid in a glass bottle.  You can apply with cotton balls or with a mister.

If you do not have vanilla beans handy you can make an aromatherapy spray using vanilla extract

Vanilla Room Spray
 1 ounce witch hazel extract
 3 ounces water
 2 tsp vanilla extract

Pour all the ingredients into a 4 ounce glass bottle and shape well.  Using a mister, shake well and spray the air avoiding light color furniture and clothing.  The vanilla scent in the air can reduce anxiety and evoke pleasant memories.  It is was used with great success for those having MRI tests, reducing the anxiety of being in an enclosed space.

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