Cooks Corner

Vanilla is more exciting than it gets credit for

Chef Norman Van Aken uses vanilla in a spicy pineapple vinaigrette for fish.
Chef Norman Van Aken uses vanilla in a spicy pineapple vinaigrette for fish. Vanilla Table

I once scorned vanilla, made fun of those who chose vanilla ice cream over more-exciting flavors, even referred to the blandest person I ever met as Mr. Plain Vanilla.

Maybe I’ve mellowed, or maybe I’ve simply matured in my tastes, but I realize now that there is a beauty in vanilla, that its subtle touch enhances, and that — given the right stage — it can soar.

Flipping through Natasha MacAller’s Vanilla Table (Jacqui Small LLP, $40), I was intrigued to see vanilla used in much more than desserts.

There are 100 recipes for everything from appetizers to breads to drinks from MacAller, and a veritable who’s-who of chefs who contributed original and unexpected takes, both sweet and savory.

Jonathan Waxman, Jim Dodge, Duff Goldman and Rose Levy Berenbaum, to mention a few, and two that Miami food aficionados will recognize: Norman Van Aken (vanilla shines in his fish marinade and vinaigrette here) and Douglas Rodriguez (Rum- and Vanilla-Cured Salmon).

MacAller describes vanilla as “a passion. It is the power behind the throne of fragrance and flavor. . . Its captivating scent is everywhere, hidden in more things than you can imagine (cola, perfume, dryer sheets, not to mention my Aunt Helen’s Victory Garden Bundt Cakes).”

Once a professional ballerina who danced with the Joffrey Ballet, her culinary credits include teaching in London, consulting for restaurants in New Zealand and the United States, and advising and coordinating food-and-wine events around the world and writing for many food magazines.

Sweet substitute

A spokeswoman for the North Carolina Sweet Potato Board contacted me after I wrote about the looming possibility of a Great Pumpkin Shortage and how other winter squashes could be substituted.

She pointed out that sweet potatoes also are a great stand-in for pumpkin in pies, breads, soups and casseroles. I’m passing along that thought, should you want to make a sweet-potato bourbon pie. Recipes for that and other grand ways to use sweet potatoes at the board’s website:

I couldn’t resist this recipe for a totally different potato salad. It’s indulgent, for sure, but you can argue that the vitamins A and C, manganese and antioxidants make it good for you.

Veteran’s Day promotions

IHOP is serving a stack of Red, White and Blue pancakes from 7 a. m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday, and Applebee’s is offering free entrees to veterans and active-duty military who provide proof of service.

Tried and New

The Pantone color of the year is marsala, a deep red wine shade popping up in everything from paint colors to lipsticks. Now you can eat it too: The trendy color is shows up in a new black cherry flavor of Philadelphia Cream Cheese spread. Real black cherries give it the great hue. Available in larger stores now at a suggested price of $2.49 for an 8-ounce tub.


Q. Andalusia bakery in Coral Gables use to have the best butter cookies with sprinkles! Does anyone have the recipe?

Lisa Bochner Spiewak

Linda Cicero:, @TasteMemories. Write to Cook’s Corner at Food, Miami Herald, 3511 NW 91st Ave., Doral, FL 33172.

Grilled Sweet Potato Salad with Hot Bacon Dressing

Recipe from the North Carolina Sweet Potato Board.


6 slices center-cut bacon

2 tablespoons raspberry vinegar

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon bacon drippings, warm

Sea salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Sweet Potato Salad

2 1/2 pounds sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch rounds

Sea salt

Freshly ground black pepper

2/3 cup sliced green onions (about 10-12)

1/2 cup sundried tomatoes packed in oil and cut into strips

1/3 cup toasted pecans

1/3 cup blue cheese crumbles

Make the dressing: Heat oven to 200 degrees. In a skillet or microwave, cook bacon until crispy; drain and reserve drippings. Crumble bacon and set aside. In a small bowl, whisk together vinegar and mustard; slowly whisk in olive oil and 1 tablespoon of the reserved drippings until dressing is emulsified. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Keep warm in oven.

Using a brush, lightly coat sweet potatoes with olive oil. Put the potatoes in a re-sealable plastic bag, add the oil, and massage to coat all surfaces.

To grill: Just before putting on the grill, season sweet potatoes liberally with salt. Place rounds directly on the cooking grate over direct heat; grill until well-marked, about 3 minutes on each side. Move to indirect heat. Finish cooking, turning halfway through, until soft and tender, 20-30 minutes. Remove from grill. Immediately cut into quarters and remove to a large bowl.

Grilling alternative: Heat oven to 400 degrees. On a rack fitted into a baking sheet, place sweet potato rounds and season well with salt. Bake until tender and browned around the edges, about 30 minutes. Immediately cut into quarters and remove to a large bowl.

To make the salad: Add about 2 tablespoons of the dressing to the sweet potatoes and toss until just coated. Add reserved bacon, onions, sundried tomatoes, pecans and blue cheese. Drizzle with more dressing as desired and toss to coat. Season to taste. Serve immediately or at room temperature.

Per serving: 360 calories (52 percent from fat), 21.5 g fat (4.9 g saturated, 12.3 g monounsaturated), 17,7 mg cholesterol, 7.9 g protein, 37.3 g carbohydrates, 1.7 g fiber, 426 mg sodium

Yield: 6 servings

Pineapple Marinated Fish with Spicy Pineapple Vanilla Vinaigrette

Recipe by Norman Van Aken from Natasha MacAller’s “Vanilla Table.”


3 cups freshly extracted pineapple juice

1 1/2 teaspoons jalapeno juice, stems and seeds discarded

2 vanilla pods, split in half lengthways and scraped

2 tablespoons cider wine vinegar

2 tablespoons lime juice

1 cup extra virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons tamari or light soy sauce

Kosher or sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper, to taste


4 equal pieces grey triggerfish, hapaku, bass or similar firm white fish

Fresh fruit such as mango, pineapple, nectarines, figs with skin on, thickly sliced to fit on bamboo skewers

Make the vinaigrette: Gently simmer the pineapple juice, jalapeño juice and scraped vanilla pods, with seeds, in a saucepan simmer until reduced to about 1 cup, stirring occasionally. Place the reduction in a clean mixing bowl. Whisk in the remaining ingredients, season with salt and pepper, then cover and chill until needed. Prepare the fish and fruit: Soak skewers in water for 30 minutes. Pat fish dry and place in a baking dish. Brush each piece with a generous portion of the vinaigrette and allow fish to marinate for 20–30 minutes as the grill heats up.

Carefully skewer fruit, brush with marinade and set aside. When ready to cook, wipe the grill lightly with oil and place fruit skewers and fish on the grill. Carefully turn when sides of fish turn opaque and fruit has seared. Serve immediately with additional vinaigrette on the side.

Note: Van Aken calls for a juice extractor, but since I don’t own one I cheated and simply pureed fresh pineapple and jalapeno and strained the juice through a paper filter, pushing on the solids. He says the vinaigrette also is “fine for finishing grilled pork ribs, a well as marinating a fatty fish for the grill or a hot wok, or as a dressing for luxuriously rich fruits.” I think it would rescue a rotisserie chicken from the supermarket as well.

Per serving: 706 calories (74 percent from fat), 60 g fat (8.5 g saturated, 41.3 g monounsaturated), 78 mg cholesterol, 23.5 g protein, 22.5 g carbohydrates, 1.6 g fiber, 368 mg sodium

Yield: 4 servings