Delicate, Exquisite Vanilla Orchid

Steelgrass Farm is an 8-acre family farm specializing in rare, tropical hardwoods, timber bamboo, fruit and cacao trees, as well as vanilla and palm blossom honey. As a biodiverse farm, Steelgrass grows more than 150 varieties of landscape plants, trees and native plants.

For three consecutive years, Steelgrass Farm has won the Blue Ribbon at the Kaua’i County Farm Fair for the island’s best vanilla, as well as the Best Tropical Multi-floral Dark Honey at the Hawaii Natural Honey Challenge.

Emily and Will Lydgate, owners of Steelgrass Farm, are the great-grandchildren of John Mortimer Lydgate, a preacher who would conduct morning English-speaking sermons in Lihu’e and afternoon Hawaiian sermons in Koloa.

As founding members of the Hawaii Chocolate and Cacao Association, Steelgrass Farm offers a chocolate farm tour ($65) each Monday, Wednesday and Friday. They also sell cacao and vanilla seedlings and teach how to plant, tend, harvest and market them.

VANILLA

Vanilla is a vine native to Mexico and the only edible orchid. The name is derived from the Spanish word vaina, which means sheath or pod. Vanilla means little pod. There are three major cultivars of vanilla and Steelgrass grows the V. planifolia variety, also known as Bourbon vanilla or Madagascar vanilla.

Pods, known as beans, are used as a flavoring, and take up to two-and-a-half years to go from “seedling” to edible bean. This is one reason they are expensive.

Its natural pollinator, the Melipona bee, does not exist on Kaua’i. Flowers must be hand-pollinated in the early morning because they begin to close by noon. If not pollinated by early evening, the flower dies.

Pollinated flowers turn into pods, which spend 10 months on the vine. Once the pods are harvested, they go through a complicated curing process for three to four months, dry for up to 45 days and “rest” for another two months.

Season: On Kaua’i, vanilla flowers blossom mid-May through mid-June.

Storage: Airtight storage is necessary, otherwise the aroma will dissipate.

Tip: Make vanilla sugar by covering a pod with a pound of sugar in a jar with a tight-fitting lid. For cocktails, steep two pods in 3 cups of vodka for 36 hours. To make your own vanilla extract, steep for six weeks. Top with fresh vodka as you use it and it will last for years.

Preparation: When using a vanilla pod, slit one whole bean lengthwise. There will be thousands of tiny seeds in a dark, sticky paste. Scrape this out and add it to custards for tarts or ice cream, or add to meringues, syrups, cream sauces, baked goods and fruit.

Health benefits: Ancient Mayans believed that vanilla had aphrodisiac qualities. The extract contains small amounts of B-complex vita-mins such as niacin, pantothenic acid, thiamin, riboflavin and vitamin B-6, as well as small traces of minerals including calcium, magnesium, potassium, manganese, iron and zinc.

Steelgrass Farm products can be found at: Purchase single estate, Kauai-grown chocolate bars, palm blossom honey and vanilla beans at the Steelgrass Gift Shop. Call 821-1857 or visit Steelgrass.org.

Kaua’i-based Black Dog Farms uses Steelgrass Farm vanilla beans in its vanilla sugar blends. Oahu-based Madre Chocolate makes a 70-percent Hawaiian Dark Chocolate bar exclusively from Steelgrass Farm cacao.

BLACK DOG FARMS’ VANILLA TEA

This recipe comes from Janine Lynne, owner of Black Dog Farms mustards, hot sauces and spice blends. You can buy her Steelgrass Farm vanilla sugar at the Waipa farmers market every Tuesday. Lynne says you can make this tea two ways: with just black tea, or with mango juice and green or red tea. Makes 1 quart of iced tea.

* 4 cups cold water
* 2 vanilla beans
* 5 bags of your favorite tea
* 2 cups mango juice (optional)
* sugar, honey or agave, to taste (optional)

Cut vanilla beans in half lengthwise to expose seeds and put into a large pot with 4 cups of cold water. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and lightly cook for 10 minutes. Remove from heat and add tea and sweetener. Steep two minutes for black tea; three to five minutes for green tea and 10 minutes for red tea.

Remove tea bags (do not squeeze if using black tea, as it releases bitter tannins) and stir well. Let the tea cool to room temperature, then strain into a pitcher, add juice and stir. Serve over ice.

Marta Lane is a Kaua’i-based food writer. For more information, visit TastingKauai.com.

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