Tuesday, April 28, 2009


Ancient indeed is the history of vinegar. Over the centuries, vinegars have been employed for culinary, health, body care and even cleaning purposes. We derive our word vinegar from the French “Vin Aigre” meaning sour wine, although all vinegars are not necessarily made from wine. Most are made from some fermented product with the exception being the famed balsamic vinegars.

…understand the difference…
To understand the difference between vinegars in general and balsamic vinegars specifically, it is helpful to know a few facts.

…on the market today
The more readily available vinegars on the market today include:

Distilled White Vinegar- usually made from distilled grain alcohol, it is sharply acidic, sour and unpleasant. Although commonly used in pickle making, its harsh flavor is not recommended in cooking.

Apple Cider Vinegar- produced from fermented apple cider has a mild apple flavor and is appropriate to use where a low acidity is desired.

Malt or Beer Vinegar- like beer, ale and scotch, this vinegar is made from malted barley and is a favorite in Britain, traditionally served with Fish and Chips.

Berry and Fruit Vinegars- are sweet, mild and delicate… delicious with fruit dishes and in salad dressings.

Herb Vinegar- is actually selected vinegar that has been infused with an herb or an assortment of herbs. Probably the best known is Tarragon Vinegar, often used to make Béarnaise sauce.

Honey Vinegar- historically speaking this is the most ancient of vinegars dating back to the Egyptians. In addition to the purported healthful properties, this vinegar is known for its very complex aroma. It is used in cooking and sometimes, beverages. Check out ours!

Rice Vinegar- is common ingredient in Chinese, Japanese and other Asian cuisines. Very low acidity makes this vinegar one of the mildest of all varieties.

Wine Vinegar- made with red wine, Sherry, white wine or Champagne, the flavor profiles can range from potent and pungent to light and mild. These are familiar ingredients in Vinaigrettes and many other cooking uses. Check out our selection!
… “rock star” status
Balsamic Vinegars- The unique and noble “Gold Standard” of Italy produced in the regions of Modena and Reggio Emilia. It has only been during the last three decades that American cooks have discovered balsamic vinegar and elevated it to “rock star” status in the culinary world.

… “liquid gold”…
In Italy, balsamic vinegar has been prized for centuries. In medieval times, it was valued for its healing properties and at one time was even believed to be a cure for the plague. For a thousand years, wealthy Italian families have produced balsamic vinegar for their own use, but it has only been available commercially for the last 40 years or so. Fine aged balsamic vinegars were considered treasured family heirlooms, often as part of a bride’s dowry. Considered “liquid gold,” small kegs of balsamic vinegar could be slowly consumed or even sold if economic conditions warranted. On special occasions, royalty and only the most fortunate guests might receive balsamic vinegar as a gift.

…no traditional balsamic vinegar ever really starts from “scratch”
To produce fine balsamic vinegar, the must which is unfermented juice from whole grapes (usually Trebbiano and/or Lambrusco) including the skins, seeds and stems is cooked and reduced to dark syrup. This syrup is then placed in a barrel containing a small amount of an earlier batch of balsamic vinegar and then aged in a progression of smaller and smaller wooden barrels or kegs. When vinegar is drawn from the smallest and oldest of the lot, this barrel is topped up with vinegar drawn from the next smallest and so forth until the largest barrel receives the new batch of the cooked must. None of the barrels or casks is ever fully emptied. So, there is no such thing as a vintage because no traditional balsamic vinegar ever really starts from “scratch.” These barrels are usually made from oak, chestnut, cherry wood, ash, mulberry, acacia and juniper, with each wood adding its own character and nuances. The collection of these barrels is referred to as a “batteria.”

New barrels
In Reggio Emilia, new barrels must first be certified by the Consorzio fra Produttori di Aceto Balsamico Tradizione di Reggio Emilia. This is also the group that is responsible for the evaluation and classification of the vinegars themselves. Upon approval, the barrels are branded with a special seal and then seasoned through a process that can take two years. Old Balsamico barrels are highly treasured and revered.

…prized and priced…
The batteria of barrels is stored in maturation rooms in attics to benefit from hot summers and cold winters, which allow for the different stages of development. Holes in the tops of the barrels are covered with cotton cloths and tiles of porous stones. As the vinegar ages it naturally reduces by evaporation through the barrels, which in turn thickens and concentrates the flavor and increases complexity. The longer the vinegar ages, the more highly it is prized and priced.

…evaluating and certifying…
When evaluating and certifying the quality of “Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale” (Traditional Balsamic Vinegar) the tasters of the consortium are responding primarily to the taste, balance and other characteristics, not the age. However, age classifications for marketing purposes do exist and are divided into the following categories starting with the oldest and grandest.

“Extra Vecchio” (extra old) Balsamico is 25 year old Traditional Balsamic produced in Modena. “Oro” (Gold Label) Traditional Balsamic is the corresponding product from Reggio Emilia.

“Invecchio” (old) Balsamic is 18 year Traditional Balsamic from Modena, while in Reggio Emilia it is known as “Argento” (Silver Label).
“Affinato” is the 12 year Traditional Balsamic of Modena and the Reggio Emilia version is the “Aragosta” (Red/Orange/Salmon Label).

“Balsamico Condimento” (Condiment) Strictly speaking, these vinegars are not authentic Traditional Balsamic Vinegar and cannot be labeled as such. However, some of the best producers choose to sell their products that cannot pass the Consortium regulations as “Condimento.” Although they employ similar techniques, the various products in the market place have different characteristics regarding acidity, density, color and overall quality. “Condimentos” are not as complex or “deep” as Traditional Balsamic Vinegar, but can still taste quite good. This having been said, there are some fine vinegars at reasonable prices among this style.

“Aceto Balsamico di Modena” (Balsamic Vinegar of Modena), these are various vinegars that have only one thing in common- their name. Currently, anyone anywhere can legally produce Balsamic Vinegar of Modena. They can range from very sweet to pungent and savory. The better quality (and more expensive) are aged at least three years while the “cheapies” are aged only a few months in stainless steel tanks and artificially sweetened and thickened. These vinegars far outsell the real thing and can be good for everyday use. BUYER BEWARE… there is plenty of fake balsamic vinegar on the market. “Aceto Balsamico di Modena” (Balsamic Vinegar of Modena), is not the same as “Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale” (Traditional Balsamic Vinegar)

Generic Balsamic Vinegar The traditional methods are used to make these vinegars, but they are produced using must grown in the areas where they are produced- (outside the regions of Modena or Reggio Emilia).

“Balsamela” (Country Style Apple Balsamic) “Balsamela” is a highly appreciated vinegar utilizing traditional techniques but using Vignola apples instead of grapes.

White Balsamic Vinegar Although the product is made in Modena, the difference is in the color, taste and production process. The must is prepared first by pressure cooking and then aging for 1 year in uncharred barrels. In the cooking process caramelization is avoided and the aging technique keeps the vinegar lighter in color and flavor, making it an excellent accompaniment to fish. Check out ours!

The key to any well made vinegar is balance. All vinegars will display an expected acidity of course, but it should be an acidity that is balance with the fruit and other flavors. Tasting the most famous vinegar in the world, Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale, is not unlike tasting wine. The difference being that you only taste a small amount of balsamic vinegar not drinking an entire glass. In fact traditionally, this legendary vinegar is tasted by pouring a drop on the back of the hand and then tasting directly. Tasting from small spoons works just fine, as well. Good balsamic vinegar should be a rich, dark brown, syrupy like substance with a distinctly complex, acid fragrance. The flavor should be sweet and sour in perfect proportion. On the palate it should be full, round and luxurious with a variety of nuances.

A Few recipes using vinegars:

Béarnaise Sauce (made with tarragon vinegar)
The French chef that taught me to make Béarnaise insisted on using clarified butter for all emulsified sauces; however the New Orleans influenced chefs of the gulf coast preferred to use whole butter. I like the whole butter version better and it’s quicker to prepare. Do not use an aluminum pan when making this recipe.
Yields about 6 servings

2 Tablespoons shallots, minced
½ cup tarragon vinegar
½ cup dry white wine
2 Tablespoons dried tarragon
2 Tablespoons dried chervil or parsley
3 egg yolks
2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, melted
Pinch of cayenne pepper
Pinch of ground nutmeg
Pinch of ground white pepper
Salt to taste

(1) Combine minced shallots, tarragon vinegar, wine, tarragon and chervil or parsley.
(2) Bring to simmer in a small saucepan and reduce liquid to a little less than 1/3 cup.
(3) Remove saucepan from heat and allow to cool.
(4) Separate eggs and place yolks in a round stainless steel bowl. Reserve whites for another purpose.
(5) Strain cooked herb mixture from the saucepan, reserving herbs, and add liquid to egg yolks and whisk well.
(6) Select a pan a little wider in diameter than the bowl with the egg yolks in it so that the bowl can spin freely. Fill pan with about an inch of water and bring the water to a gentle simmer. Do not bring to a boil.
(7) Place bowl of egg yolks and reduction liquid into the pan of simmering water, rotating bowl quickly and whipping yolks briskly with a wire whisk.
(8) Slowly at first, dribble in a few drops of the melted butter, whisking constantly. As the sauce emulsifies, continue to add the remaining butter, a little at a time, until all the sauce has thickened. The stainless steel bowl may have to be removed and then returned to the heat several times while the butter is being added to maintain the proper consistency.
(9) Add a heaping tablespoon of the reserved shallots/herb mixture and the pinches of cayenne, nutmeg and white pepper. Add salt to taste.
(10) If necessary, the sauce may be thinned by beating in a little warm water. Enjoy Béarnaise sauce with roast beef and just about anything off the grill. Serve warm but do not try to reheat as it will brake and curdle.

Braised Asparagus Tips with Raspberry Vinegar
Serves 6

4 cups asparagus tips (about 2 inches long)
3 Tablespoons unsalted butter
2 Tablespoons chicken stock or water
¼ cup raspberry vinegar
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes (or more)
1 teaspoon salt or to taste

(1) Slice the top 2 inches off the asparagus spears and save stalks for a soup.
(2) Melt butter in a large sauté pan.
(3) Add asparagus tips and stir a bit. Cook over a medium heat 3 minutes.
(4) Add stock or water, raspberry vinegar, red pepper flakes and salt.
(5) Continue cooking over medium heat, stirring occasionally. About the time the liquid has cooked off, the asparagus should be ready. Serve immediately.

Pickled Peaches (made with apple cider vinegar)
A perfect match with Southern Fried Chicken
Yields 4 quarts

12 – 14 small ripe, unblemished peaches (figs work well too)
About 3 dozen whole cloves (3 per peach)
2 cups light brown sugar
3 cups apple cider vinegar
1 cup water
4 cinnamon sticks
1 Tablespoon whole allspice

(1) Parboil peaches 3 to 4 minutes and dip into cold water to quickly remove skins, but do not cut the peach or remove stones.
(2) Stud each peach with 3 whole cloves. Set aside.
(3) In a large stainless steel or enameled pan, combine brown sugar, apple cider vinegar, water, cinnamon sticks and allspice. Cover and bring to a low boil.
(4) Add peaches 3 or 4 at a time, and simmer together for 10 minutes.
(5) Allow peaches to stand in liquid 4 to 6 hours.
(6) Spoon peaches into hot, sterilized wide-mouth jars.
(7) Bring remaining syrup to boil. Place 1 stick of the cinnamon into each jar and cover with hot syrup including a few allspice, leaving a little space at the top of each jar.
(8) Place seals and lids on immediately. Allow to settle and cool. Pickled peaches should age at least 1 month.

STILTON Salad Dressing

Preparation time: 15 minutes
Yields about 1 cup


2 Tbsp. white balsamic vinegar
2 Tbsp. Dijon mustard
¼ cup dry white wine
2 oz. stilton blue cheese
3 Tbsp. Extra Virgin Olive Oil
3 Tbsp. unsalted butter, melted
2 shallots, minced
⅛ tsp. white truffle salt
⅛ tsp. freshly ground black peppercorn

In a small bowl, whisk together all ingredients. Toss with salad greens

Poached pears with white Balsamic vinegar

Preparation time: 45 minutes
Serves 4


½ cup sugar
1 cup water
4 large Bosc pears, halved peeled and cored
1 cup fresh ricotta cheese
¼ cup almond, toasted and coarsely chopped
4 Tbsp with balsamic vinegar


1.) Preheat oven at 350°F.

2.) Combine sugar and water in medium saucepan over medium-high heat, and bring to a boil and cook few minutes to make syrup.

3.) Place pears in shallow ovenproof dish, and pour syrup over them. Cover with foil, and bake until tender, about 20 - 25 minutes.

4.) Remove from oven, and cool until just warm.

5.) Place 2 pear halves on each of four plates with a dollop of fresh ricotta and a sprinkle with almonds. Spoon any syrup remaining in pan over and around the pears. Drizzle 1 Tbsp of white balsamic vinegar over each portion, and serve.

Balsamic Vinegar Reductions
Cooking with an Extra Vecchio, Invecchio or even Traditional Balsamic is like making a wine sauce with fine vintage Bordeaux. Its not that it wouldn’t taste good, but it would be wasteful because other far less expensive wines would work just as well.
It is possible to convert an inexpensive balsamic into a rich syrup by the process of reduction. Use only stainless steel or enameled pans for the reducing process to avoid reactions with the acid in the vinegar. Over a very low heat cook the vinegar slowly until the liquid is reduced by 1/2 to 2/3 of the original. Heating and reducing will increase the sweetness and reduce the acidity, although a little brown sugar can also be added for a more sweetness, if desired. The resulting syrup can be used as is on fresh fruit, roasted vegetables, cheeses, pastries, desserts, pancakes or even ice cream. Restaurant chefs even used balsamic reductions as a garnish to decorate plates.

A quick and spectacular pan reduction sauce will go really well with chicken breasts, lamb chops, game, pork, or beef medallions. Rub the pieces of meat with your choice of seasoning (salt, pepper, thyme, tarragon, rosemary, etc.). Heat about two tablespoons of olive oil in a large sauté pan and cook the meat on both sides until it reaches desired doneness. Remove cooked meat and reserve on a warm platter until you finish making the sauce.

To finish and serve: Mince 2 or 3 shallots and sauté gently in the same pan in which you cooked the meat. When shallots are translucent (do not scorch or they will turn bitter), deglaze pan by adding ¼ cup balsamic vinegar and ¾ cup meat stock; reduce to about 1/3 cup, remove from heat and whisk in 2 Tablespoons of butter until smooth. Pour onto meat and serve, garnished with a sprig of a fresh herb. Rich, smooth, sweet, tangy…amazing!

Friday, April 10, 2009


As I made my way out of the crowded balcony of the theater, I heard the voice of The Knoxville News Sentinel Food Writer, Mary Constantine. “Hey chef, did you have fun?” she asked. The question caught me somewhat off guard, but after a moment’s hesitation, I answered “well yes, I guess I did.”

Her query referred to the 90 minutes or so that we had just spent listening to the phenomena that is Anthony Bourdain. I was at the time, already sorting through my diverse reactions (and crafting this post) about the man and his message.

In writing about this, I am determined to try to avoid some of the clichés that are so often used to describe Chef Bourdain. “Bad boy of cuisine”, “anti-celebrity chef”, “outspoken”, “rants and raves”…I would really like to come up with my own descriptions and honest reactions. Let’s see how I do.

First of all, we can start with “honest” …yes, I thought he was honest, even if I did not always appreciate the way he expressed himself. He was honest in a way that I swear reminded me of the poetry of Allen Ginsburg, read in person by the author. I was fortunate enough to have been able to spend a little time around Allen in the 70’s and that was my word for him, honest… sometimes embarrassing and uncomfortable, sometimes inspiring, but definitely his own truth.

I did not walk into the theater a “big fan” of Bourdain, but not particularly antagonistic either. I was curious and intended to make up my own mind about the guy. I knew a bit about him through his shows and reputation. I have also read just one of his books, which I thought was weird, but fascinating in kind of a guilty, voyeuristic way.

The stage was bare except for a drawn curtain and the wooden podium that the chef utterly avoided. Bourdain entered the stage to enthusiastic applause from the mostly packed house. I realized as I took in the crowd, that the younger generation of restaurant cooks and workers (with tattoos, piercing, and other fashion statements) were well represented. Later, as I listened to the question and answer segment, I noted the deference with which many addressed the chef. He is clearly a hero (notice, I resisted using anti-hero) to many of the millennial generation and maturing members of generation “y”- and I see why, I think.

What I gather is that Chef Bourdain is not necessarily critical of the classic lions of the modern culinary world, but is really truthful about the hard realities of working in a modern restaurant kitchen. He was also really truthful about the character flaws of many of us associated with this profession. However, I think he reserves his most genuine contempt for the modern “celebrity” chef and the media star making machine that creates them. To his credit, he also recognizes that his success is based on the same media.

As I have reached a little deeper into his statements regarding some of these celebrities, I see that he can be very contemptuous of the content of their shows but still respectful and even good friends with many of them. (Not all, of course)- I’m not sure how he could be more disgusted with the work of Sandra Lee or The Food Network in general. I am very glad however to have found one of his statements concerning a personal culinary hero of mine, Julia Child. The chef writes …” the saintly Julia Child sought to raise expectations, to enlighten us—teach us – and in fact, did…”

He proclaimed that he did not consider his career as a working chef to have been particularly distinguished, but now he has the “best job” in the world. He calls himself an “old school French chef”, a description that I like a lot, of course. I’m not quite sure his opinions about New American and Fusion Cuisine, but I’m guessing it depends on whether or not it was well prepared. Other examples of his opinions were very unambiguous. Bourdain calls the popular program Hell’s Kitchen (which I loathe) “a circus of cruelty”.

He certainly has a lot of freedom to do what he wants and says what he thinks in whatever colorful language that suits him. He is indeed noted for his profanity and the fact is that his language was a little hard for one of the members of our group that attended the event together. She is a very elegant and cultured lady in her eighties and it was certainly a little rough for her. It was quite clear to me however, that his loyal fan based loved it- based on their wild cheers after each expletive.

In the darkened theater it was impossible to take any notes and it was probably not necessary anyway, because a good deal of his presentation can be found on line, in his books, blog etc., etc. –this not a criticism, but actually rather convenient for anyone wishing to write about him or at least his opinions.

For a man whose reputation is totally entwined with judgments and criticism, I was surprised to note that some of my first impressions of him were of his open mindedness. I really admire his appreciation of the everyday people of the world, their kitchens and their real food and customs. His advice about not eating in restaurants frequented by tourist Americans while traveling in foreign countries was well taken.

I enthusiastically agreed with his attitude toward trying new foods, pushing personal limitations and honestly examining cultural prejudices. My wife and I have been appalled by some of the comments that have been made by some acquaintances returning from Cancun. Such as –“we didn’t even have to change our money into pesos or we stayed right at our hotel and ate all the time at the golden arches where everyone spoke English” … we find ourselves thinking “why did you even bother going to Mexico in the first place?”

I still wouldn’t describe myself as a “big fan” exactly, but I think Anthony Bourdain is a very healthy development in our “foodie” culture. He confronts issues that need to be addressed and stimulates valuable discussion and debate. In the several days since Mr. Bourdain’s appearance, I’ve given the man and his work a good deal of thought, and you know what I did have fun –a lot of fun!