Sunday, October 7, 2012

Ingredient of the Month: Vinegar

From vin, meaning wine, we get vinegar.  Whether choosing a bottle of red or a bottle of white, vinegar adds a zip of flavor to any dish, from salads to desserts.  Myth number one: vinegar, it’s not just for salad dressing anymore!  Myth number two: while wine vinegar may be the most prevalent, vinegar can be produced from a host of other mediums, not just wine.

Allowing high quality wine to aerate slowly over a period of weeks or even months produces the best wine vinegar.  This oxygen exposure promotes the growth of acetobacters, the bacteria that converts the alcohol in the wine to acetic acid.  While the word vinegar elicits thoughts of wine, it can actually be made from anything that contains sugar.  One prominent example of this would be apple cider vinegar.

Vinegar has been utilized for centuries, once used both as a flavor enhancer and a preservative agent.  During the Middle Ages, seafaring crews seeking refreshment decided to bore holes in the casks that they were transporting, in a quest to imbibe a clandestine sampling of the wine.  Sounds a lot like the work of underage partying teenagers, does it not?  Once the casks were bored into, however, oxygen began its work and the wine would sour, thus the cargo became vinegar.

There are two general guidelines when selecting wine vinegar.  First, the longer the wine was allowed to aerate naturally, the better the vinegar will be.  Second, vinegar made from a particular wine, such as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon or Champagne are going to taste better than generically-labeled ‘red wine vinegar’ or ‘white wine vinegar.’

Vinegar is also produced from rice wine, which is widely used in Asian cuisine, beer, raisins, fruit wines, such as raspberry wine, sherry, malt and palm.  I thought I had bragging rights on the inventory of seven to nine different vinegars that grace my kitchen cabinet until an acquaintance topped that number by leaps and bounds.

Balsamic vinegar is made specifically with the concentrated juice of the Trebbiano grape variety.  The aged vinegar is traditionally crafted in the Reggio Emilia region of Italy.  The best quality balsamic vinegars have been aged in several successive wooden casks for approximately 12-25 years.  Those aged for a minimum of 12 years bear the ‘aceto balsamico tradizionale’ label.  These exquisite, dark brown, mildly sweet nectars fall under the Protected Designation of Origin status. 

Balsamic vinegar offers the palate a perfect harmony of acidic and sweet.  Remember balking at the reference to desserts in the introductory paragraph to this post?  One of the most popular dessert uses for balsamic vinegar is to macerate strawberries in it, and then pour the strawberries over vanilla ice cream and finish with a sprinkle of freshly cracked black pepper.  The result is a complex symphony of flavors to keep your taste buds excited.

After cooking meats, fish or poultry in a skillet, vinegars are perfect for deglazing the pan and then drizzling over the meat.  When reduced with fruits, such as figs or cherries, balsamic vinegar adds a facet of flavor that renders the reduction perfect for glazing duck, pork roasts, pork chops or steaks.  A splash of balsamic vinegar adds the perfect finishing touch to caramelized roasted vegetables.  Naturally, we must not omit the extensive use of vinegars in the making of salad dressings.  Below, I have shared two of my vinaigrette recipes that I use extensively.

My fellow Long Island foodies, I must now recommend to you an intriguing and enjoyable shopping excursion.  The Crushed Olive is the mecca of oils and vinegars.  Of the two locations that I have frequented, the store in Huntington has the most extensive variety.  The stores are set up with metal casks of oils and vinegars.  Each cask has a dispensing spigot.  It is there for a reason, as you will note when you spy the dishes of bread cubes and miniature dispensing cups.  Sampling is strongly encouraged!  There are over two-dozen vinegars to choose from and an equally vast array of oils.   In addition to an 18-year aged traditional balsamic vinegar, flavored balsamics available include apple, black cherry, cranberry pear, tangerine, strawberry, raspberry, fig and even dark chocolate and espresso, just to prattle off a few.  Extra-virgin olive oil is offered, as well as olive oils infused with such flavors as blood orange, lavender, Tuscan herb, harissa, wild mushroom and sage, etc.  As we paid for our purchases on our last visit, freshly baked brownies were beckoning shoppers to taste them.  I was immediately in heaven as I savored one of the most classic flavor combinations of chocolate and orange, made possible by substituting the called-for vegetable oil with blood orange olive oil instead.  The flavor was sublime.  Black and white truffle oils are also available for purchase, as well as French walnut oil, almond oil and roasted sesame oil.  This is a flavorful and fun shopping experience, with shops located in Huntington, Stony Brook and in Sayville.  Their wares are perfect for amping up the flavor of salads.  The black cherry vinegar and the strawberry vinegar add a touch of summer to green salads, while nothing says fall more than the apple vinegar. 

Vinegars are excellent flavor enhancers in culinary projects, such as in my recipes for Braised Fennel with Apple Balsamic Vinegar and Brussels Sprouts with Bacon and Hazelnuts.
For traditional vinegar uses, here are two vinaigrettes that I make regularly for salads.

Balsamic Vinaigrette
½ cup excellent quality extra-virgin olive oil
¼ cup quality balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon fresh cracked black pepper
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon finely minced Italian herbs (such as parsley, oregano, basil)

Whisk all ingredients together until well blended. 

This is excellent for any Italian salad, including a tomato and fresh mozzarella salad Caprese.  It also works nicely for coating vegetables that are destined for the roasting pan, and for marinating a steak.  It’s perfect for my roast pepper salad:

Roast Pepper Salad
Balsamic vinaigrette (above recipe)
3 large red bell peppers
3 large yellow bell peppers

Preheat oven to 500-degrees.  Place whole peppers directly on a metal cookie sheet and place in the oven for 30 minutes.  Remove from the oven and immediately cover the whole sheet with foil, tucking the foil under the sheet all around the edges.  Allow the peppers to rest for at least a half hour, or longer until cool enough to handle comfortably.  Remove the foil.  Now the skin should peel right off.  As you peel the peppers, tear the peppers into strips and place the strips into a bowl.  Once all of the peppers have been peeled, toss the peppers with half of the vinaigrette.  Serve either chilled or at room temperature.

Champagne-Dijon Vinaigrette
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons champagne vinegar
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 garlic clove, minced
1 teaspoon sea salt
½ teaspoon fresh cracked black pepper

Whisk all ingredients together until well blended.

This dressing works well for almost any salad, from colorful summer heirloom tomato salad platter to a tossed garden vegetable salad to a French salade Nicoise platter.  Here’s a nice salad to kick off a fall dinner, perfect when figs are in season.

Salad Greens with Endives, Figs, Walnuts & Cheese
Champagne-Dijon Vinaigrette (above recipe)
6 cups mixed salad greens
4 Belgian endives, halved lengthwise, layers separated
8 fresh figs, halved vertically
1 cup crumbled goat cheese, Stilton, Roquefort or Gorgonzola cheese
½ cup shelled walnuts

Combine the salad greens and endives.  Arrange mixture among four salad plates.  Divide the cheese among the four plates and sprinkle over each salad.  Arrange four fig halves over each salad.  Sprinkle walnuts on top of each salad; then drizzle each salad with the vinaigrette.

Food for Thought

Just because the temperatures are descending, that doesn’t mean you don’t get to enjoy a really good salad anymore.  While the scorcher days of summer are conducive to dining on chilled main dish salads, fall gives rise to reclaiming the salad course as a satisfying opening act to any dinner.  After we have savored the last of the summer tomatoes, peaches and peppers, there is now a whole new palette for creating the perfect autumn salad.  Start with the background of mixed salad greens, perhaps with some endives and/or radicchio tossed in.  Add to the greens a quality cheese.  That can be crumbled goat cheese, any crumbled blue, such as Gorgonzola or Roquefort, or even thin slices of a Brie or Camembert.  Next, choose an autumnal fruit to add to the plate.  Choices include apples, pears, figs and dried cranberries.  Now for some crunch and healthy fats, toss in some walnuts, hazelnuts or pecans.  Finally, a drizzle of one of the above vinaigrettes will provide that finishing touch.


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