Balsamic vinegar became the vinegar of choice for the gourmet cook in the United States in the early 1980s. Nevermind the fact that this marvelous vinegar has been around since 1046. According to Waverly Root (The Food of Italy), it was in 1046 that Bonifacio di Canossa presented a barrel of it to the Emperor Henry III as a coronation gift.
In Modena, Italy, aceto balsamico is as precious as liquid gold and has as many users that look to it as much for its medicinal properties as its use in the kitchen. In cellars all over Modena it is not unusual to find kegs of vinegar that have been aging for 60 or 70 years. Aceto balsamico was such a precious commodity it was given as special gifts and as part of a bride’s dowry.
Unfortunately, the unparalleled popularity of balsamic vinegar over the past 20 years has spawned imitations that are weak cousins to the original Aceto balsamico di Modena. The difference in flavor and taste between a top quality aged aceto balsamico and younger versions of “Modena-style vinegar” is like, say, comparing Beluga caviar from the sturgeon to whitefish caviar.
Quality of balsamic vinegar ranges from what is called tradizionale to riserva (must be at least 12 years old), and extra vecchia (must be at least 25 years old). Obviously, the older vinegars are the best and truly represent the quality and unique flavor of what this vinegar is all about.
In pizzerias, balsamic vinegar has a variety of uses –– from drizzles on appetizers, to salad dressings and as finishes on pizza. The current trend toward artisan pizza lends itself well to balsamic vinegar –– we’ve seen it reduced alongside pear, prosciutto and gorgonzola and atop pizzas with chicken and garlic.
Give these recipes a try for artisan flair:
PANZANELLA CON CECI (BREAD AND CHICK-PEA SALAD)
Yield: 4 to 6 servings (Scale up in direct proportion)
3 cups 2- or 3-day-old Italian bread, cut into ½-inch cubes
1 pound (8-10) very ripe plum tomatoes, cut into ½-inch chunks
1 tablespoon drained capers
½ cup finely chopped red onion
½ cup finely chopped celery
1 cup drained canned chickpeas, rinsed
10 sprigs flat-leaf parsley
1 clove garlic, peeled
1 teaspoon dried oregano, crumbled
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
8-10 leaves fresh basil (to taste), torn
½ teaspoon salt
4-5 grinds of black pepper
Soak the bread in a bowl of cold water to cover for 15 minutes. Remove it from the bowl and squeeze it well with your hands. Discard the water.
In a large serving bowl, combine the bread, tomatoes, capers, onion, celery and chickpeas. Set aside.
In a food processor fitted with the steel blade, combine the parsley, garlic, oregano and vinegar. Process for 15 to 20 seconds to combine.
With the machine running, add the olive oil in a steady stream and process until smooth. Drizzle the dressing over the salad, add the basil, and toss well to combine.
Season with the salt and pepper to taste. Allow the salad to sit at room temperature for 45 minutes to an hour before serving.
PROSCIUTTO AND MOZZARELLA PIZZA WITH CARAMELIZED ONIONS
Yield: One pizza
12 ounces red onion, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons plus 1/4 cup olive oil, divided
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon dark brown sugar, packed
4 large garlic cloves, chopped
1 red bell pepper, thinly sliced
1 cup mozzarella cheese
2 ounces shredded prosciutto (or thinly sliced)
Freshly chopped thyme for garnish
In a heavy saucepan, sauté onion in 2 tablespoons of olive oil until softened. Add Worcestershire sauce, balsamic vinegar, brown sugar and garlic. Cook until liquid evaporates and onions are caramelized (can be made ahead and held).
Roll out dough ball. Brush shell with remaining olive oil. Top with mozzarella cheese, shredded prosciutto, bell pepper and onions. Bake until cheese browns. Top with fresh thyme and serve immediately.
Pat Bruno is Pizza Today’s resident chef and a regular contributor. He is the former owner and operator of a prominent Italian cooking school in Chicago and is a food critic for the Chicago Sun-Times.