For lunch I ate a Fontina-and-tomato toastie, drizzled with traditionally made balsamic vinegar, the kind that costs $75 and up.
Dinner included a sauteed mushroom and peashoot salad, dotted with the same luxurious vinegar.
Dessert was salted caramel ice cream with peaches, strawberries, almonds sauteed in butter and–you guessed it–a little swirl of aceto balsamico.
Why am I using expensive balsamic vinegar as an everyday treat?
Here’s the story. Last fall I eagerly accepted my thoughtful friend Mary Anna’s offer to bring traditionally made balsamic vinegar from an acetaia in Modena, and ordered two bottles, one for me and one for daughter Kate. We compared notes not long ago and realized neither of us had even opened the box.
A whole year had gone by without so much as a taste of that delicious elixir!
Life is too short for that kind of behavior. So we’re fighting the impulse to hoard something special for an ever-receding perfect event or group of people. Instead, the new rule is to use real balsamic vinegar whenever we feel like it.
I started by mixing it into salad vinaigrette for relatives. After one taste, someone complimented the dressing. The only other ingredients were a decent but not outstanding Sicilian olive oil, sea salt and black pepper. So I’m pretty sure the vinegar gets credit for elevating that salad to the wow! category.
Before talking more about making the most of traditional balsamic, let’s review the basics. Balsamic vinegar can be made legally only in the regions of Modena and Reggio Emilia. The best begins with cooking juice from particular varietals (including lambrusco and trebbiano) to form a thick must that is then fermented. The long aging process calls for carefully transferring the vinegar to ever-smaller barrels. Eventually, it is packaged in a unique bulbous bottle with a narrow base.
The confusing thing is that lesser vinegars (priced as low as $4) that can also be labelled balsamic comes from these same Italian regions.
The most common type blends a mediocre wine vinegar with a trace of must, coloring the liquid with caramel. It has been splashed around menus in this country for so long that, if you’re like me, you’re thoroughly sick of its harsh flavor.
To make the situation even more confusing, there’s a middle ground: young, well-made, moderately priced “baby” balsamics made from 100% must but aged less, up to three years or so. Often these are labelled “condimento,” a vague term that nonetheless is attached to some excellent products, with a price range of $20-$40 or so.
I plan to write a post on choosing a good balsamic brand. In the meantime, if you have traditional balsamic or a good-quality condimento in your cupboard (or are willing to buy them), here are some ideas. In general, acidic foods such as fruit benefit from your best balsamic’s sweet complexity and so will rich ones such as meat, cheese or rich pasta dishes.
Vegetables: Drizzle grilled zucchini with good olive oil and your best balsamic. Or sprinkle droplets on and around a platter of asparagus wrapped in prosciutto.
Meat or Fish: Garnish a grilled or pan-seared steak, lamb chops or fresh tuna with a bit of good balsamic.
Ice cream or berries: Better yet, put them together, spooning berries over vanilla or custard ice cream and drizzling with balsamic. Peaches and mangos are other fruits that take well to a good balsamic.
Cheese and Tomatoes: For the ultimate Caprese, drizzle good olive oil over mozzarella slices and dot the tomatoes with good balsamic; finish with a sprinkle of sea salt. Improve a cheese platter by precision-dropping balsamic onto aged Asiago or Parmigiano Reggiano chunks. And don’t forget to try that open-faced cheese and tomato toastie I mentioned in the beginning.
A little good-quality balsamico goes a long way but do add enough for the lovely flavor to come through. For some dishes, such as two scoops of ice cream, a demitasse spoonful would be about right.
What will I do when the last drop of balsamico is gone? Buy more, of course, either from my favorite Italian deli or an online supplier. Or drop some hints for the holidays or my next birthday.