I’m a sucker for single-subject cookbooks. Writers obsessed with a subject are the best because, well, they are obsessed. They leave no stone unturned, no use of an ingredient unexplored. They have license to travel to the far reaches of the world in search of the source, to explore history, to find the best.
The Balsamic Vinegar Cookbook (1996, Collins) by Meesha Halm is a case in point – a perfect one for condiment lovers. Like so many of my books, it’s out of print, but there seem to be plenty of used copies available online.
This pretty little book came out a couple of decades after the “discovery” of balsamic vinegar in the U.S. in the 1970s. You may know the story: Treasured, time-honored authentic Italian condiment becomes ubiquitous American condiment – often bastardized and cheapened, generally drizzled over fresh mozzarella, pizzas and salads everywhere. But there’s a lot more to cooking with a decent, affordable balsamic. Whether your tastes run to gazpacho, braised broccoli rape or savory Mediterranean stew, this book dishes up the recipes, including a great section on condiments, including chutney.
That was Then
A lot of us got very tired of the balsamic vinegar craze. We wanted the good stuff, but, back then could only afford the grocery store version, often called “Balsamic Vinegar of Modena” – a sorry blend of coloring and thickeners – and maybe a little wine vinegar but no actual grape must –the key ingredient in traditional balsamic. These blends are mass-produced, both in Italy and in the U.S.
But as the balsamic love continued, more American and Italian producers began making artisan versions that, while far from the authentic balsamic, are excellent for more everyday uses. Today, there are plenty of fine, affordable options out there. Bottom line, when buying balsamic vinegar priced around $25 - $35 or so, read the label carefully and look for grape must in the ingredient list, along with an indication of age.
If you’ve been lucky enough to taste the occasional drop of the real thing – aged aceto balsamico tradizionale di Modena, and aceto balsamico tradizionale di Reggio Emilia, you know that at its finest, it can taste of fine old port, fig and vanilla, toffee, caramel and chocolate, resinous wood and herbs. So complex and sensually exciting, it is often sipped from a tiny cup, all by itself. (If you’re in Salt Lake City, Liberty Heights Fresh has a whole shelf dedicated to such fine vinegars and offers some for tasting – just ask.)
Good Compromise for Cooking
If you can afford the real thing, you’ll probably want to enjoy it on its own or with a minimum of other ingredients. But if you want to spend less than $10 on balsamic vinegar for cooking, salad dressings, or drizzling on sandwiches, Antica Italia Balsamic Vinegar is a good bet. It is made with grape must and aged in chestnut barrels, which is pretty amazing for the price. At Caupto's Deli in Salt Lake City, it's the vinegar of choice for some fine sandwiches.
Here are two things, beyond salad dressings, that I like to do with a less expensive, but non-industrial balsamic vinegar. One so simple it’s a little embarrassing, the other requiring a little time.
1. Pour about a cup of less expensive balsamic vinegar, such as Antica, into a non-reactive saucepan, warm slowly over low heat and let it reduce down to a syrupy consistency. Drizzle over grilled meats or fish, on a fresh pear, walnut and mache salad, or over a platter of sliced ripe figs and some aged Parmigiano Reggiano. That last treatment is a classic for the very fine balsamic vinegars, as well.
2. Make Blueberry Chutney
Adapted from The Balsamic Vinegar Cookbook, this gorgeous take on chutney is spiced with jalapeno. The recipe called for frozen or fresh berries, but I’ve found that the frozen didn’t set as well. Super with grilled lamb or pork, or whatever strikes your fancy.
Makes 2 cups
2 cups fresh blueberries
2 cups golden raisins
¾ cup firmly packed light brown sugar
½ cup balsamic vinegar
½ cup finely chopped crystallized ginger
1/3 cup finely chopped yellow or white onion
1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and finely chopped
1 clove garlic, crushed through a press
grated zest of one large lemon
1 cinnamon stick
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
Combine all ingredients in a medium, heavy-bottomed, nonreactive saucepan. Bring to a boil over high heat, stirring often to avoid scorching. Reduce heat to low and simmer, stirring occasionally, until very thick, 15 to 20 minutes. Cool completely.
The chutney can be prepared up to one week ahead, covered tightly and refrigerated. For longer storage of up to 3 months, transfer the hot chutney to sterilized canning jars, cool completely, and store in refrigerator.
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For a thorough history and discussion of balsamic vinegars and some unbiased recommendations, visit The Nibble.com and just type in balsamic vinegar for access to a lengthy 3-part series.