2010 June: A Must Have

Balsamic vinegar became the vinegar of choice for the gourmet cook in the United States in the late ’70s –– nevermind the fact that this marvelous vinegar has been around since 1046. In Modena, Italy, aceto balsamico is as precious as liquid gold. In cellars all over Modena it is not unusual to fi nd kegs of vinegar that have been ageing 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 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 fl avor and taste between a top quality, properly aged aceto balsamico and younger versions of “Modena-style vinegar” is like, say, a prime cut of beef from choice beef. It’s all about the intensity of flavor ranging from highly aromatic to slightly sweet and mellow.

The quality of balsamic vinegar range 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. (I once tasted a teaspoon of a 100-year-old aceto balsamico in Verona, Italy, and the fl avor was uniquely spectacular, a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I will never forget.)

Quality balsamic vinegar, the real deal, is made only from the unfermented juice of the fully ripened white grapes –– Trebbiano, Sauvignon and Lambrusco. The juice pressed from these grapes, called the “must,” is boiled down for four or fi ve hours to produce an intense, sweet, ambercolored concentrate. The “must” is then aged for years at a time in small wooden casks made of juniper, chestnut, cherry, oak, ash and mulberry. It’s transferred from one keg to another, each keg or cask adding a new and unique fragrance to the vinegar.

Balsamic vinegar is remarkably versatile. It is the vinegar of choice for a uniquely Italian salad dressing. It can be used as an ingredient in a marinade for poultry or meat. A sprinkle or two adds a special flavor to grilled fi sh or cooked vegetables.

Note: price must be considered. Older vinegars can be quite expensive. So for everyday use, simply look at the label on the bottle. If it reads “Balsamic Vinegar of Modena” (commercial grade that imitates the traditional product, no ageing is involved) you are good to go for the recipes that follow. On the other hand, if you are using an aceto di balsamico for a special chicken, pasta or veal dish, I would suggest making a simple yet delicious balsamic reduction using a vinegar that is at least 12 years old (a little bit goes a long way). Once reduced, I put the vinegar reduction in a squirt bottle and finish off the dish with drizzles of decorative swirls.

Balsamic Reduction

1 cup balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into pats

Put the vinegar in a small saucepan. Bring to a simmer over medium heat and cook until it has been reduced to about ¼ cup. Swirl in the pats of butter one by one, stirring constantly. Off heat, cool the reduction. Use in the recipes that follows:

Penne and Chicken Salad
Yield: 4 servings (scale up in direct proportion)

3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Salt to taste
4 ounces cooked penne or other short pasta, drained
2 cups diced, cooked chicken
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
4 cups mesclun or mixed greens

In a mixing bowl large enough to hold all of the cooked pasta, combine the lemon juice, vinegar, olive oil and salt. Whisk to combine. Add the cooked pasta, cooked chicken and Parmesan cheese to the mixing bowl. Toss to combine.

On an oval serving platter, arrange a mound of the pasta and chicken salad. Alongside the pasta, arrange some of the mixed greens. Drizzle some of the balsamic reduction over the greens. Serve at once.

Chef’s tip: I have used the balsamic reduction when making a steak lover’s pizza. I sauté or grill a ribeye, boneless sirloin or flank steak to medium rare. Cut the steak into bite-size pieces. Toss the steak in the balsamic reduction.

Meanwhile, grill or sweat strips of yellow, red or green bell peppers (or a combination of all three). Cut the pepper into bite-size pieces. Add the peppers to the steak and toss to coat. Brush a 14-inch pizza shell lightly with some of the balsamic reduction. Spread the cooked steak/pepper combination over the pizza crust. Sprinkle a combination of shredded mozzarella and provolone over the steak and peppers. Alternatively, use shredded Asiago cheese in place of the mozzarella and provolone. Bake the pizza. Just before serving, drizzle the top with some of the balsamic reduction.

Basic Balsamic Salad Dressing

1 clove garlic, put through a garlic press
2 teaspoons Dijon-style mustard
2 tablespoons traditional balsamic vinegar
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil

Put all of the ingredients in a glass measuring cup and whisk to combine. Use for any green salad or house salad. Scale up in direct proportion. 

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.