The first time I saw anyone use vanilla beans was Ina Garten on Barefoot Contessa. She said vanilla beans were expensive so I dismissed buying them myself, putting vanilla beans in the same category as saffron. I'd also never seen them for sale in my usual shopping spots either.
The first time I saw/smelled/used vanilla beans was when a swap partner sent me some as part of my package. Could not believe how good they smelled! I promptly made vanilla sugar and won't be without it in my cupboard!
Take 2-3 vanilla beans and place them in a mason jar of sugar. Your sugar will be flavored with vanilla in a week or so. Just keep adding sugar to the jar; the beans will last for years.
I've read online for years about how to make your own vanilla extract. I just never got around to doing it until a co-worker asked if I wanted to be part of her online vanilla bean order. So, my pound of Tahitian vanilla beans arrived and we started our homemade vanilla extract.
A bottle of cheap vodka (or other grain alcohol. I've heard rum is also delicious.)
3/4 pound of vanilla beans
Make a slit in each vanilla bean and drop into the alcohol. Let sit in your pantry for 3 to 4 months. Remove the beans, strain if desired and enjoy your vanilla extract!
Finally, I put some of the saved vanilla beans into homemade ice cream. (Slit open the bean, scrap out some of the seeds and add to ice cream base.) It's the same flavor boost as using orange zest in cooking. Very intense flavor and sooo yummy!
So I hope this inspires you to get some vanilla beans and enjoy using them in your kitchen!