Vanilla pods, also known as vanilla beans, are the cured pods of a climbing orchid native to tropical America but the best are said to come from Madagascar.
A good vanilla pod is plump, moist and deliciously fragrant. The seeds are extracted by cutting the pod open and scraping out the tiny specks with a pointed knife.
Strips of the pod can be rinsed, dried and used again in cooking, up to twelve times in order to maximise value. Storing the used pods in a jar of sugar will make vanilla sugar.
Vanilla extract is also handy to keep in the kitchen for desserts, drinks and baking. Make sure you buy pure vanilla extract, rather than the cheaper chemically produced vanilla essence.
In addition to custard and ice cream, vanilla is an excellent addition to fruit compotes. Vanilla sugar is nice to keep to hand for baking, desserts and drinks.
Used judiciously, vanilla can work well in savoury dishes, especially with scallops or white fish if the seeds are added to an oil dressing.