Fruit of an Orchid
The Olmecs flourished in the sweltering coastal regions of southern Veracruz and neighboring Tabasco from about 1400 to 400 BCE. This most ancient of Mesoamerican civilizations derives its name from the Nahuatl composite word “Olmecatl,” or “People of Rubber.”
Olmecs were originally defined by their unique style of sculpture. Skilled artisans produced supple figures such as the famous “Wrestler” statue. The pre-Olmec period saw a stratification of society with an elite group at its apex. Olmecs may have been the first to practice ritual bloodletting, linked with religious observances in later New World societies.
Ceremonial centers, such as San Lorenzo and La Venta, were notable for large-scale urban design. Residential sites consisted of small villages built close to water. Slash-and-burn agriculture was practiced. Maize, beans, sweet potato, and cotton were supplemented with fish, mollusks, birds, and game. Domestic dogs provided a frequent source of protein.
Veracruz is the original source of vanilla beans, the only edible fruit of the orchid family. Vanilla was used as a spice in ritual offerings until the Aztecs added it as flavoring to chocolate. Hernán Cortez tasted the exotic drink xocohotl when Emperor Moctezuma served it to him. Cortez was so impressed that he brought it back to Spain, where it quickly became the exclusive beverage of 16th century European aristocracy.
Madagascar is the largest producer of vanilla. Mexico is third, followed by Tahiti, Costa Rica, Brazil, and Venezuela. Today’s chefs are creating culinary surprises, including flavorings for vegetables and entrées. This unusual bisque takes vanilla beyond desserts.
Shrimp Bisque with Vanilla
4 tbsp. butter
1 cup thinly sliced celery
1 cup thinly sliced green onion
1 large clove garlic, minced
4 tbsp. flour
1 cup dry white wine
4 cups chicken stock
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract (or to taste)
2 tsp. tarragon
2 tbsp. fresh marjoram
3 large bay leaves
1 cup heavy cream
1 tsp. salt
Pinch ground white pepper
1/2 tsp. cayenne pepper
2 cups small corn kernels, fresh or frozen
1 to 1-1/2 pounds peeled and de-veined medium shrimp, chopped
Squeeze of lime, dash of tabasco
Chopped fresh chives or cilantro
Melt butter in a large heavy saucepan. Sauté celery, green onion, and garlic until soft but not brown. Sprinkle flour over the vegetables and stir to mix well. Add wine and stock, whisking to blend. Bring to a boil and add vanilla, tarragon, marjoram, and bay leaves. Reduce heat and simmer 20 to 25 minutes, until acidity of the wine has disappeared and flavors have mellowed. Add cream, salt, pepper, and cayenne; raise heat to medium high and cook three to five minutes longer, until heated through. Adjust seasonings. Add corn kernels and shrimp and simmer five minutes longer, stirring occasionally, until the shrimp are brightly colored and soup is heated through. Ladle the soup into hot bowls and add a dash of lime and Tabasco to each serving. Garnish with chives or cilantro and serve immediately.