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So many people think vanilla = plain. One dimensional. The career back-up singer in a dessert with stronger, sexier, Tina Turner-like ingredients. The choice to resort to when you've got picky eaters with sad, unadventurous palates.

But once you let vanilla go solo, and let it be the best it can be… whoa.

Vanilla is native to tropical America, and it comes from the only orchid plant that produces anything edible. The beans are picked and fermented to develop rich complexity. Real vanilla has so many nuances of flavor and aroma, no lab has been able to make a dead ringer. Get yourself a vanilla bean or two, one that's fat and flexible, then rub and inhale. Beautiful, right?

You can make vanilla sugar by scraping out the bean and mixing the dark tiny seeds into sugar; I also put the scraped pod in the sugar, too, and leave it for months, adding scraped vanilla beans as I use the seeds in other recipes. (Why throw out a perfectly good and expensive bean?) You can make vanilla salt using the same method as vanilla sugar—I use a grey sea salt (sel gris)—and it's great on fruit, popcorn, and white-fleshed seafood. Make your own vanilla extract by adding five split pods to a pint of alcohol. I use vodka because it contributes no other flavors; you can also use rum or bourbon. Let it sit in a dark spot for at least two months before using it.

The recipe in Cooking Light Chill for Vanilla Ice is a surprisingly great way to give vanilla the spotlight. It has just three ingredients—low-fat milk, sugar, and vanilla—and you really don't think it's going to be much. It won't have a creamy texture like a custard-based ice cream or even a treat made with real cream. But the vanilla sings, releasing its flavor as the ice crystals melt in your mouth. It reminded us of making snow ice cream.

Give yourself a special treat: Seek out a bottle of vanilla paste and try this ice with an equal amount of paste in place of the vanilla extract. (Buy vanilla paste from specialty food, spice or kitchen retailers, KingArthurFlour.com, or Amazon.com.) The ice will have pretty little flecks of vanilla, and you'll get to experience vanilla in a way that you might not have before. Bonus: You don't need an ice-cream maker--just a glass baking dish and a fork, and you're making wonders in your kitchen.

Vanilla Bean IceThis ice is reminiscent of making ice cream out of snow. While many commercial vanilla desserts are too cloying to let the vanilla flavor shine through, this three-ingredient recipe will show you that vanilla’s anything but plain. You can use an equal amount of vanilla paste for the extract; it will create an ice flecked with vanilla seeds. 

Hands-on time: 13 min.Total time: 3 hr. 13 min.

4 cups 2% reduced-fat milk1/2 cup sugar1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1. Combine all ingredients in a bowl, stirring with a whisk until sugar dissolves. Pour into an 8-inch square glass or ceramic baking dish. Cover and freeze until partially frozen (about 1 hour). Scrape with a fork, crushing any lumps. Freeze, scraping with a fork every hour, 2 hours or until completely frozen.

Serves 7 (serving size: 1 cup)

CALORIES 127; FAT 2.8g (sat 1.8g, mono 0.8g, poly 0.1g); PROTEIN 4.6g; CARB 21g; FIBER 0g; CHOL 11.2mg; IRON 0mg; SODIUM 57mg; CALC 163mg