My Pod

The Kitchen / A Limousine

GUEST: Sid, Representant De Nournture

[AB is lying on the couch, blindfolded, trying to solve a Rubik's cube, the telephone rings]

AB: Hello?

SID: [sitting in his limousine] Downtown Alton Brown! Ha, ha, ha. It's been forever. How's eats?

AB: Well, who is this?

SID: Oh, A. B., it's Sid. Don't tell me you forgotten what we did for sweet potato. He's huge, thanks to us.

AB: Yeah, I remember sweet potato. How's that working out?

SID: He's a bum! Six months tops and he'll be back to dinner theatre.

AB: Oh, he dumped you, didn't he?

SID: Forget that tuber. I've got my sights set on a brighter star, a megastar, the biggest flavor on the block! It's recognition factor is off the charts! And he's playing every pantry in the country as we speak.

AB: But?

SID:  But he has an image problem.

AB: Oh, bad boy, huh?

SID: I wish. I wish. This guy's image is squeaky clean. Even his biggest fans think he's straightforward, solid, dependable, bland, plain, boring ...

AB: Vanilla?

SID: Oh, you know his work. Of course you do. You're the man. See, we both know my client is one fat pod daddy. But, he needs a makeover, a new direction, a comeback trail. And I think—oh, nay nay, I know—you're the man to blaze it.

AB: But vanilla doesn't need me. It's one of the most exotic, spectacular, singular flavors on the planet.

SID: Oh, AB, baby, you're preaching to the choir. But you know what it's like when the congregation loses interest.

AB: No. No I don't.

SID: I hope you never do. But when you're on that long, lonely slide down, vanilla is the kind of solid culinary player you can count on to be there to soften the blow.

AB: Well ...

SID: Fantastic! I'll have a contract over in an hour! Let's make magic! Ciao, baby! [hangs up]

AB: Uh, contract?

SID: [on the phone to someone else] It's Sid. You'll never guess who's show I got you a shot on. You, my shriveled brown friend, are going to be on ...

["Good Eats" theme plays]

The Jungle

GUESTS: Bee and Bird

    For those of you who believe that vanilla is just a boring, staid, everyday kind of spice, I offer this fun fact: of the 20,000 or so orchid varieties that are growing their curious little lives tangled up out here in the tropics, only one produces food for us, the vanilla orchid. Now it's not unusual for the vines to climb a hundred feet up in the treetops just so the flowers can see the sun.
    [Climbs to a high branch on a tree] There she is. That is a vanilla blossom. But in order to put on fruit, that blossom must be pollinated. And this is pretty tricky, because it's only available for reproduction one day out of the year. And there are only two known natural pollinators. One is a very small, sting-less bee called mellipona, and the other is a pretty rare variety of Central American hummingbird [hummingbird model appears] which, I feel certain, doesn't really look anything like that. So if these two natural agents aren't available, the job has to be done by hand, and it is a tedious task indeed. If the miracle of pollination does occur, pods, or what we call beans, will grow on the vine to full size, generally in about six weeks. Let's have a look. [Descends a bit]
    There we go. There are some. Now even though these are full grown at, well, almost six inches, some can grow up to twelve inches depending on the weather. But even once they're full grown, they have to stay on the vine to mature for up to nine months. And even then, they're still culinarily useless.

The Kitchen

GUEST: Deb Duchon, Nutritional Anthropologist

    Like chocolate, coffee, and tea, vanilla beans have to be cured before they are of any culinary use whatsoever. Step one, a nice hot bath. Step two, spread the beans out on a blanket in the midday sun, and let them sit all day long. When night comes, roll them up in that blanket, and let them just sweat it out through the long evening. Repeat this process every single day for, eh, three to four months. And then, one morning, you'll wake up, and, lo and behold, you're going to have yourself cured vanilla beans, or pods.
    Although vanilla is commercially grown all over the tropics and in subtropics from Hawaii all the way to New Guinea, there are three classic growing zones, starting with Tahiti. Now this very, very small, very isolated island actually has its own unique variety. It's called Vanilla tahitiensis, I believe, and the beans are very, kind of delicate-looking and extremely fragrant. That's why a lot of folks think they are the cream of the crop worldwide. I happen to think that their flavor is a little bit vanilla, though, and I don't mean in a good way.
    Not true of Mexican beans. Mexican beans I love. Now this is the common Vanilla plantifolia variety. But look at them. I mean they're fat and they're oily. These things remind me of Cuban cigars. They are right down funky. The problem with Mexican beans, though, is getting a good quality supply. They are very erratic. And you never ever want to use vanilla extracts from Mexico because they are often processed with parts of the tonka bean, a filler which tastes like vanilla, but actually contains some rather dangerous carcinogens.
    Now 70% of the vanilla that is gotten here in America actually comes from over here, Madagascar. Now these are technically the same beans as in Central America. That's because they were transplanted here in 1840, okay? Now oddly enough, these beans are often referred to as "bourbon" vanilla beans, and the reason for that ...

DEB:  ... is because the island in question used to be called the Isle of Bourbon because it was discovered during the time of the House of Bourbon which ruled France off and on until 1848.

AB: Okay.

DEB: Have you told them about the crystals?

AB: No, I haven't told them about the crystals, yet.

DEB: And have you told them that those green pods you showed them before are really string beans from the market?

AB: No, I haven't told them.

DEB: Don't you think you should?

AB: Well, green vanilla pods are really expensive. They're really hard to get. And the string beans look a lot like them. Thanks for bringing it up, Deb.

DEB: Aren't you going to ask me how I like my vanilla?

AB: No. You hurt my feelings.

DEB: Aww.

    No matter where your beans come from, quality is going to be an issue and it's your responsibility. Now one thing that you can do is always buy them from reliable vendors. I usually buy mine from the Internet. I don't buy them from the megamart because you just don't know how long they've been sitting around on their shelves. Now, when examining a bean, well, it's tough to tell what's good and what's bad considering they're all shriveled up little brown things. But what you don't want to see is brittleness, okay? This is leathery [bends it slightly] but is still pliant, okay. That is a good sign. Now if you want to check yourself for very, very, very high quality, you're going to have to break out your magnifying glass.
    Turn the bean in question under a hard light source and watch for little sparkles. If you see them, that means you've got yourself a prime bean, because that is crystallized vanillin. And vanillin is the molecular substance that we think of when we think of vanilla.
    Curious thing about vanillin, it has a tendency of show up in foods that don't actually contain any vanilla whatsoever. This is especially true of beverages like white wine, champagne, sherry, scotch, bourbon, even English beer. What do all these have in common? They spend a good bit of time inside wood. That's right. Hard woods, especially oak, contain a lot of vanillin, which can be extracted. And that actually explains why imitation vanilla extract is so cheap; it's made from wood.

Vanilla orchids grow wild in the swamps of south Florida.

The Kitchen

GUEST: Federal Agent

    Most American cooks get their vanillin in liquid form. The vanillin in this bottle of imitation vanilla extract may have come from wood pulp, or maybe even as a by-product of the coal mining industry. But the one place it definitely did not come from is a vanilla bean. That said, it's cheap, and definitely vanilla-y. And to tell you the truth, I don't mind using this stuff in baked goods like brownies, where vanilla is essentially singing backup, if you get my drift. Now, although pure vanilla extract can, by law, contain things like corn sweeteners and caramel colorings, the best ones contain nothing but alcohol, water, and beans. In fact, the law requires ...

AGENT:  [sticks his head around the side] ... that pure vanilla extracts contain a minimum of 35% alcohol and 13.35 ounces of bean per gallon.

Um, that's what's called a single-strength, or 1-X extract. Double or even triple-extracts are available. But since recipes almost never call for them, I don't see any reason to keep them on hand. Now, natural vanilla flavoring ...

AGENT:  Which contains real vanilla bean, but no actual alcohol.

... doesn't deliver as intense a vanilla flavor. But since it's not in an alcohol base, it doesn't evaporate as easily as extracts usually do, so they're good for adding to hot mixtures.
    Now I should mention that you can make your own extract, but it takes a whole bunch of beans, and a whole bunch of time, so I really don't advise it.
    As for storing beans themselves, oh, I always keep them inside plastic bags, and then I keep the bags sealed inside an airtight container, and I keep that in a cool, dark place. Do that, and your beans will stay, well, golden brown and delicious for up to a year.
    Vanilla extract is strong stuff. In large doses, it takes over whatever team it's supposed to be playing for. In small doses, however, it becomes a subtle agent of unification. Case in point, a humble fruit salad.

    I have here one Granny Smith apple cored and diced, one cup of seedless grapes halved, one pear peeled, cored, and diced, ten to twelve medium strawberries halved, one mango peeled and diced, one banana sliced, and one-third of a cup toasted, chopped walnuts. Now, if I just mix this all together we'll have ourselves a very nice salad. But you know, here's the thing about fruit salad: a lot of these flavors don't really get along with each other. And of course, it's actually kind of hard to eat. Vanilla extract, with some friends, will rescue us.

1 Granny Smith Apple, Cored
    & Diced
1 Cup Seedless Grapes,
1 Pear, Peeled, Cored &
10-12 Medium Strawberries,
1 Mango, Peeled & Diced
1 Banana, Sliced
1/2 Cup Toasted, Chopped

    One teaspoon of vanilla extract, one teaspoon of lemon juice, one teaspoon of honey—just squeeze that right out of the bear's head and approximate—about a quarter teaspoon of salt, a few grinds of pepper, one-half cup of plain yogurt, and a quarter cup of mayonnaise. Stir to combine.

1 tsp. Vanilla Extract
1 tsp. Lemon Juice
1 tsp. Honey
1/4 tsp. Kosher Salt +
Freshly Ground Black Pepper
1/2 Cup Plain Yogurt
1/4 Cup Mayonnaise

    There. And I think a little more black pepper would be a good thing. Now this is a fruit salad that actually stays nicely on the fork. [tastes]. Mmm, and it tastes fabulous. Could be a dessert, it could be, heck, it could be a meal by itself, it could be a salad, whatever you want. And if you keep it covered, it'll keep for up to a week in the refrigerator. This is delicious. I'm going to call Sid about this one. He's going to love this. [dials Sid]


GUEST: Lobster Man

SID: [answers phone] A salad? Oh, that's great! Ha, ha, ha! Yeah. A small, offbeat dish that'll reintroduce vanilla but show he's got range. I can dig it, yeah. But AB, baby, we gotta plot the big guns. We need a mainstream blockbuster. Original, yet familiar. Unique, but accessible. I'm thinking dessert. Whaddya got? Oh, crème brûlé. Oooh lar lar. Perfect, yeah. It's sweet enough so the kids can dig into it, but sophisticated so the parents will love it. Oh, I knew we were on the same page. We're like two minds, beating as one. Make it happen! Hah! [hangs up the phone, to Lobster Man]

LOBSTER MAN: [looks depressed]

SID: You look fabulous! Look at you.

The Kitchen

    To make crème brûlé we will have to split and scrape one vanilla bean.

1 Vanilla Bean, Split &

    Is there a better way to do it? I think so. Here's how. Position your bean on the board, hold your knife thusly [holds the knife between his fingers about 1 to 2 inches from the point] and place the tip right in the middle, facing away. And use your finger as a guide and just pull the bean across the blade. Notice that I inserted the knife midway through the bean. And I'm going to do the same going this way. And just pull the bean across the knife. That way, you get two nice equal sides like that. Now as far as getting the pulp out, turn the knife over, and work one side at a time. Again, you're just going to pull the bean across the back of the knife. Run through the other side.

    Next step, bring one quart of heavy cream just to a simmer with our vanilla inside. Now you could do this in a saucepan or stockpot, but I like to use an electric kettle. I keep one around just for this kind of thing.

1 Quart Heavy Cream

    If you do choose to go with the electric kettle option, make sure you turn off the kettle before the cream comes to a boil or you'll have a nasty clean up. Let this steep for 15 minutes.

Many medical facilities use the vanilla aroma to
calm patients undergoing MRI and CAT scans.

The Kitchen

GUEST: Sound Guy

    When your vanilla is done steeping, wash off the leftover bean, and shove it into a vessel, cleverly labeled "vanilla sugar". Believe it or not, the sugar will suck considerable flavor and aroma out of that spent bean. And you can use it for all sorts of things, like making crème brûlé.

    While the cream cools down a little bit, we'll turn our attention to six egg yolks. You'll want to whisk those until they are very light in color. And then you'll slowly drizzle on half a cup of sugar, vanilla sugar if you've got it. And that's 3.5 ounces.

6 Large Egg Yolks
1/2 Cup Vanilla Sugar

    Time to temper. Slowly, very slowly, drizzle the still-hot cream onto the eggs, whisking continuously. This will keep them from curdling, of course. Then pour them back into something with a pour spout. In this case, I'll use my electric kettle.

    Now we turn our attention to a 325 degree oven. Add your favorite roasting pan, and put a tea towel in the bottom of that. It'll prevent the six 7-to-8 oounce ramekins from scooting around while they're being maneuvered. Then you can pour in your mixture. Now you're only going to go up to the little line on the inside lip of those ramekins. You should have enough for six.

325 Degrees

    Now once those are filled, it's time to add hot water, not boiling, just hot water to the pan. That'll keep the heat from moving into the brûlés too quickly. It'll make for a smoother texture. Now you're going to bake these for 40 to 45 minutes. When you come back, you expect that, you're going to think, "They're not done. They're too wobbly." But remember, we're talking eggs here, and if they are done in the pan, they will probably be overcooked on the plate. So, pull them no matter what you think. Oh, and come back for the water after it cools.

More than 130 distinct chemical compounds
have been identified in true vanilla extract.

    Being a male, I love crème brûlé not because it tastes good but because I get to burn up something when I make it. Now there are a lot of small torches on the market, some of which are actually designed to do fine soldering and brazing work. But the rest of these are little more than glorified butane lighters that are hard to fill and grotesquely underpowered, not to mention grotesquely overpriced. Besides, I can go down to the hardware store and get me one of these [hardware store version of a torch]. This is serious fire power, a nice big tank that'll last you forever, and look, a safety on-and-off. Heck, this thing's good for, I don't know, home intruders or for crème brûlé. Let's get it on! Oh, but before that, make sure that, if you have one of these tanks in your house, you have one of these tanks [fire extinguisher] in your house. Capiche?
    Now I like to use an overturned plate as kind of a firing platform. Just park your brûlé there and then sprinkle on some sugar. You don't want too much or the crust will be too thick. So I'd say probably a quarter to a third of a teaspoon here. Kind of jiggle it around to make it nice and even, and then fire up your torch. Point straight down into the center and use little circular motions just until you see the sugar start to melt and boil, and that's when I pick it up. Right about there [the sugar boils]. Now pick it up and start turning it. Don't worry; you're not going to burn your hands. Just hold the torch right in the middle, and rotate the brûlé. This lets the liquid sugar kind of rotate around to make a nice even disk. There. Now of course, this will have to cool for a couple of minutes. But you don't want to wait too long to serve it or the sugar will get mushy.
    Now, if we have our shell right when you break it, it'll sound like this.

AB: Sound guy, bring that thing in closer. [motions for the microphone] There you go.

SOUND GUY: [off camera, places the microphone right on top of the brûlé]

    Listen. [breaks the caramelized shell] That's it.

AB: Thanks, guy. No, you can't have any.


GUEST: Shallot Man

[AB is in the limo with Sid and Shallot Man, AB looks at Shallot Man in wonder]

SID: [tastes the crème brûlé] Oh, AB, this is fantastic. You are a genius.

AB: Oh, thanks.

SID: Now we just have to come up with an even more brilliant dish.

AB: We do?

SID: Yes, for the sequel. We have to strike while we're hot. Make them back-to-back, like "Back to the Future". Hmmm, I'm thinking. Vanilla crème brûlé and shallots.

AB: Ahem. Um, you know, I'm sure he's really, really tasty, but maybe this time we should just leave the recipes to me.

SID: You're the professional.

AB: Thanks.

SID: Jules, stop the car! Mr. Brown is getting out here.

AB: We're still a mile from my house.

SID: You could use the exercise. The camera really does add ten pounds, you know.

AB: Well, okay. Excuse me. Yes, sorry.

SID: In your case, fifteen.

The Kitchen

    When included in a poaching syrup, vanilla has an uncanny ability to heighten and frame subtle sweet flavors. Let's make one, shall we?

    Into a heavy saucepan, pour one 750 milliliter bottle of white wine. I prefer Viognier or Riesling. Add a cup of water, about five ounces of sugar, vanilla sugar if you've got it—it's about three quarters of a cup—one whole vanilla bean, split and scraped. You're going to let that come up to, just up to a simmer over medium-high heat.

1 Bottle White Wine
1 Cup Water
5 Ounces Vanilla Sugar
1 Vanilla Bean Split &

In the 1700's vanilla was recommended by physicians to ensure male potency.

The Kitchen

    Because of their particularly high pectin content, pears are perfect for poaching. But of course, we must remove the cores before cooking. There are plenty of devices to do this. You know corers are everywhere, but they're clumsy, medieval devices, and you're more likely to shear off your hand than get all the seeds out. That's why I use this. [camera pans to show an unmodified cordless drill with a padle bit] Heh, heh, heh, heh. [Clint Eastwood voice] Go ahead, punk, poach my pears. Needless to say, this 11/16-inch paddle bit is only used for food. Well, that's not entirely true, but it is very, very, very clean. Now, here's how we do this. Grab yourself a pear and place it on a towel or some other safety device, hold the drill nice and flat, and slowly core about halfway up into the fruit.

[in James Bond voice] "Do you expect me to talk, Drill?"
[in Goldfinger voide] "No, Mr. Pear, I expect you to die. [finishes drilling] Ha ha ha ha ha ha."

    And if that wasn't tortuous enough, time to be slowly cooked in boiling syrup. [normal voice] Actually, it shouldn't be boiling, so we're going to reduce that to just so it's barely rippling, and then slowly lower the pears in using their handy stems. There. The liquid will come up almost to the top, but not quite. That's fine. That'll kind of soak up. Now we're going to let those stay covered for 30 minutes.

4 Pears, Peeled & Cored
    From The Bottom

    When they're finished, they really shouldn't look very different. They certainly shouldn't be mushy. But when a knife is pushed into the side, it should go in easily. Now let these cool, just on the counter for about half an hour. You'll be surprised how much they will firm up in that time, which is a good thing.
    Now we will turn up the heat, and let that cooking liquid reduce for 20 to 25 minutes or until it's down to about a cup of golden brown elixir.
    Stashed in the refrigerator, your pears will last two to three days if they are covered with plastic. Once it's cooled, the syrup can go into a squirt bottle and it'll keep for over a month.


SID: [eating a pair] Mmm. Oh, this is brilliant. It's the taste-good dish of the summer. Oh, the ultimate money picture. I can almost see the action figure. There's just one problem, though?

AB: What?

SID: I don't handle pears. Maybe we could package another one of my clients. Um, what would you say to vanilla and cauliflower?

AB: I'd say it's time for me to get out. Jules, stop the car!

SID: Jules, speed up! No, oh, the turnip. Now there's a veggie in need of a comeback special.

AB: [struggles with Sid to get out of the limousine]

SID: Or kohlrabi. She just signed this week. Ha, ha, ha, ha.

AB: Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!

Transcribed by Michael Roberts
Proofread by Michael Menninger

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Last Edited on 08/27/2010