Take one deep whiff of a bouquet of vanilla beans and fall in love. Their intense, sweet aroma is that intoxicating. The compound responsible for this distinctive, complex perfume is vanillin, contained in thousands of pinpoint seeds in the seed pods of a particular orchid plant.
To capture the essence, split the pods open lengthwise and scrape the seeds into sweet or savory dishes, then add the pods for good measure. Afterward, take advantage of the residual fragrance in the pods: Remove them once they've flavored the dish, rinse and dry them, and store them in sugar; they'll impart a sweet, mellow aroma and flavor to the sugar.
Vanilla beans (the seed pods) are expensive ― expect to pay $2 to $3 apiece. But stored airtight in a dark place (don't refrigerate), they keep for several years. Look for dark, shiny, pliable, and moist beans in supermarkets, gourmet food stores, and spice shops. Organic vanilla beans and vanilla extract from Mexico are available from Patricia Rain, Box 3206, Santa Cruz, CA 95063; (831) 476-9111 or www.vanillaqueen.com.