Most of us think of balsamic vinegar as Italian food royalty and while it’s true that in the pantheon of Italian food products Aceto Balsamico from Modena stands above all others we should not feel intimidated to use it on a daily basis. Like extra virgin olive oil, Italian balsamic has documented health benefits, an extraordinary depth of flavor and a clean delicate finish to season and enhance the flavor of a variety of foods. True balsamic vinegar only has one ingredient: must, a combination of the juice and skins from crushed Trebbiano grapes. The grape juice is cooked slowly down until it is reduced by 35 – 50%. Then, the reduction is placed, along with a bit of an older balsamic vinegar to assist with acetification, into barrels to age. After a period of time some of the vinegar evaporates and the vinegar is transferred into a smaller barrel made of a different woods (often chestnut, cherry, juniper, mulberry, acacia or ash). Each wood infuses a different flavor into the vinegar, making it more complex and unique and as the vinegar ages and becomes concentrated, it becomes thick, sweet and dark.
Glazes, reductions, vinaigrettes, drizzles – the unique sweet/sour flavor and rich consistency of balsamic vinegar is what makes it so special. It adapts well to a variety of preparations from a chef inspired Six Minute Chocolate Cake with a Chocolate Balsamic Glaze to adding caramelized onions and a tablespoon of balsamic vinegar to your basic jarred basil and tomato pasta sauce. Make 2015 the Year of Balsamic and use this exceptional Italian ingredient to its greatest potential.
Italian cooking ingredients are among the most used and abused ingredients in the world. Perfect for creating the iconic dishes of Italy, they often fall short when misused; their flavor potential wasted.
Here are 5 top things not to do with some of Italy’s most beloved ingredients at the risk of having an Italian Nonna chase you around the kitchen with a polenta stick.
- Never let garlic burn. Saute oil on a low to slow medium flame and cook gently until very soft. Don’t let the garlic burn or turn brown or it will taste acrid and bitter and impart that flavor to your whole dish.
- Never refrigerate a tomato, not even after the tomato is ripe. Refrigerating kills the flavor, the nutrients and the texture of Italy’s most beloved ingredient.
- Never forget to salt your water when making pasta. Salted water flavors pasta. Salt the water in the cooking pot just as it comes to a boil. As the salt dissolves into the water, the pasta absorbs the salt along with the water as it cooks. If you cook the pasta in plain water and wait to salt until afterwards, the pasta will taste bland no matter how delicious your sauce and . . . always follow the package instructions for proper cooking time.
- Never use “light” olive oil. Light olive oil is heavily refined undergoing several chemical processes to create a neutral oil with little if any of the flavor and healthy components of extra virgin olive oil. Some producers make olive oil extra light by adding a dash of virgin olive oil to other oils, such as vegetable or canola. If you’re worried about calories, skip the tiramisu. Light olive oil has the same fat content as regular oil, the word “light” is used in reference to the color and flavor.
- Don’t undercook mushrooms. Mushrooms have a savory flavor that is only enhanced by proper cooking. All it takes is some patience. Our Nonna cooked the best mushrooms. If porcini were not available she would use button mushrooms and they would still taste like the forests of Italy. In a large, shallow pan heat up some extra virgin olive oil, butter and finely chopped garlic. Add sliced mushrooms and cook long enough to release as much of the inherent moisture (water weight) of the mushrooms as possible, avoiding a soggy sauté. The volume of the mushrooms will decrease dramatically and becoming nicely brown . Once you’re at this stage you can add salt, pepper and Italian herb seasoning (oregano and marjoram) and if you choose deglaze the pan with some wine and cook some more. Your pan should have well-cooked mushrooms with a delicious glaze.