No, this is not the wine in Mylar bags sold in cardboard boxes. That wine was meant to taste that way. This is the product that comes from wine (or vin in French) that has naturally soured (aigre, again in French) to make vin-aigre — that is, vinegar.
It can happen naturally in wine that has been sitting around too long, as microorganisms oxidize ethyl alcohol into ethanoic acid, commonly known as acetic acid. The vinegar you find at the market can be produced the natural way or it can be produced via the laboratory; it all depends how much you want to spend on the product, with high-end Balsamico costing a king’s ransom down to industrial quality white vinegar that’s only a couple of bucks per gallon. Personally, I’m willing to spend a little more for good wine, malt or rice vinegar, and while industrial white vinegar has many uses, I don’t feel cooking is one of them. I’m still not into Soylent Green.
Some may disagree with me but I consider true Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena or Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia the king or queen of vinegar. Produced in either Modena or neighboring Reggio Emilia and strictly protected by the European Union, this vinegar isn’t made in the usual fashion since it isn’t produced from fermented wine, but rather from the syrupy motto costo, or heavily reduced juice of Trebbiano and Lambrusco grapes.
Most are made primarily from the simmered juice of Trebbiano grapes (a white grape that also makes very food-friendly white wine) until only a third of the original juice remains and turns a purplish red hue. This syrupy product is then successively aged in a series of various wood barrels including acacia, ash, cherry, chestnut, juniper, mulberry and oak in successively smaller barrels for a minimum of 12 years. During the aging process, older barrels literally dissolve into the vinegar and are simply replaced by younger barrels being constructed around the older barrels as they dissolve.
According to the consortium, the finished product is bottled in 100 milliliter bottles that resemble the shape (and size) of a traditional incandescent light bulb with Modena or a flask-looking bottle with Reggio Emilia. They are usually available as 12-year-old, 18-year-old and 25- year-old treasures, and range in price from $65 all the way up to several hundred dollars for the 25-year-old specimens. Obviously at this price range, these are not vinegars you use in vinaigrette or for pickling. Usually just a couple of precious drops enhance a slice of Parmigiano Reggiano, prosciutto di Parma or a scoop of good ice cream.
You can also find commercial grade or Balsamic Vinegar of Modena in your local supermarket, though these are produced like everyday vinegar with thickeners and coloring agents to mimic the Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale texture… at a couple of dollars per bottle. These products can be used in vinaigrettes with reckless abandon. Between the two you’ll find “Condimento” grade of balsamic vinegar, which is a happy medium between the Tradizionale and commercial grades.
The Asian Variety
Japanese rice wine vinegar is usually the lightest and mildest flavored of the Asian vinegars. Obviously, its most common application is to season sushi rice (what better vinegar for rice than rice wine vinegar?) though it’s also used for salad dressing and pickle making. Since Japanese rice wine vinegar is milder than Western white vinegar, you can’t substitute them at a one-to-one ratio when cooking. If I ever find myself out of rice wine vinegar and need to use a Western vinegar, I usually only use two-thirds of the Western variety in the recipe.
Chinese rice vinegars are usually darker and stronger flavored than their Japanese counterparts. Their black vinegar is made from black glutinous rice and has a rich, almost caramel smokiness to the flavor, while the red vinegar is produced from red yeast rice that has been fermented with Monascus purpureus. While weaker in flavor than black vinegar, it’s still stronger than Japanese rice vinegar.
Interestingly, the fermentation of red yeast rice by Monascus purpureus also produces the compound lovastatin. When it was first released in 1987, it went by the trade name Mevacor, the first statin medication to help lower LDL (“bad”) cholesterol. This spawned the whole generation of subsequent statin medications such as Zocor, Lipitor, Lescol and Crestor — all from the production of a simple red rice vinegar.
Other than the balsamic and Asian variety, the vinegars that occupy my pantry are a variety of wine-based vinegars. I always have a red wine vinegar on hand that I use alone and in combination with Balsamico for vinaigrettes, a sherry vinegar that I primarily use in my Romesco sauce (containing red pepper, almonds and garlic) and I may or may not have a champagne vinegar that is mainly used for hollandaise sauce (I find that a mixture of fresh lemon juice and champagne vinegar produces the best Hollandaise, especially for gravlax-based eggs Benedict). Most of these can be purchased at large supermarkets or your friendly neighborhood Williams Sonoma shop.
I also keep a bottle of apple cider vinegar on hand when I need large quantities of vinegar (mainly for pickling) since the sharper acidity of apple cider vinegar allows you to use less. Malt vinegar — which is produced from malted barley in beermaking — is popular with the Brits on their fish ’n chips, but being a tartar sauce kind of guy, I rarely have malt vinegar on hand (and I never acquired the taste for malt vinegar and salt potato chips).
Stretching the Good Stuff
Several years ago we purchased a bottle of the good stuff from Williams Sonoma. Since it’s used by the drop, even a 100-milliliter bottle lasts for some time. And over time, a sediment forms on the sides and bottom of the bottle. What we’ve managed to do is refill the bottle with good quality Condimento balsamic vinegar. I’ve actually refilled the original bottle five times, dissolving some but not all of that sediment goodness. And it has at least another two refillings before the sediment is exhausted, which means that the original $100 price tag will eventually work its way down to $12.50 per bottle. I realize that the quality at this point isn’t exactly Tradizionale quality, but it’s still better than Condimento quality at a fraction of the price. Not S-class Mercedes, but still C-class at a Toyota price. I encourage you to do the same.
The Gochiso Gourmet is a column on food, wine and healthy eating. Ryan Tatsumoto is a graduate of the University of Hawai‘i and UC San Francisco, a clinical pharmacist during the day and a budding chef/ recipe developer/wine taster at night. He writes from Kane‘ohe, Hawai‘i and can be reached at gochisogourmet@ yahoo.com.
Tuna and Cannelini Bean Salad
I first tried a variation of this dish at the Greystone Restaurant in Napa Valley, Calif. many years ago. It supposedly was a variation of a Tuscan bean dish with tuna. Upon returning, we discovered a recipe in Bon Appetit magazine that I’ve altered to the point that I’m not sure what the actual original recipe was in the first place. But it combines hearty tuna, creamy beans and red wine vinaigrette that’s perfect by itself, on a green salad or with toasted bread… and a nice glass of Pinot Noir or Sangiovese. And most of the recipe comes from cans (or you can cook your own beans and fresh tuna if desired).
• 2 six-ounce cans of tuna, drained (save oil if packed in olive oil)
• 2 fourteen-ounce cans cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
• 1 small red onion, finely minced
• one-third cup fresh parsley, chopped
• 3 or 4 tbsp fresh sage, minced
• half cup extra virgin olive oil (use oil from tuna if packed in olive oil)
• 2 tbsp red wine vinegar
• 2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
• Salt and fresh cracked black pepper to taste
Mix first five ingredients in a medium bowl. Whisk next four ingredients, then toss with first five ingredients. Serve immediately or chill for one or two hours, then serve.
Braised Chicken Breasts
The idea for this recipe came from Michael Chiarello of Napa Style, Bottega Restaurant and Top Chef Masters who demonstrated his version on the Food Network with Salisbury steak. Since I’m not a big meat-eater, I applied the braising liquid to chicken breasts.
• 6 to 8 chicken breasts, cut in half
• 2 cans reduced-sodium chicken stock
• half cup balsamic vinegar
• 8 ounces button mushrooms, quartered
• 8 ounces fresh shiitake, quartered
• 1 onion, roughly chopped
• 2 carrots, roughly chopped
• 3 cloves garlic, roughly minced
• 4 to 6 sprigs fresh thyme
• Salt and fresh cracked black pepper to taste
Bring mixture to a boil, add chicken breasts and bring back up to a boil. Cover and place in 300-degree oven for one to two hours. At the one-hour mark, make sure enough liquid remains to braise; otherwise, add more chicken stock.