Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Easy Balsamic Vinaigrette

This summer in the Adirondack Mountains in Northern New York state at our camp overlooking an inlet between two lakes, with scenery as gorgeous as it is extensive, and weather crisp and cool, cooking ingredients were limited while appetites were hearty.

In Saranac Lake, I could buy excellent fresh "spring mix" of various lettuces and other salad greens.

More correctly it was "mélange du printemps" that I could buy, since it came from the nearby Canadian province of Québec.

Back in camp, I needed to make a vinaigrette to dress the assorted young leaves for our salad. Fortunately, in the cupboard, left behind by earlier-visiting family members, were Progresso brand balsamic vinegar, canola oil and sea salt. From these I fashioned the vinaigrette in 30 seconds. Freshly dressed, the spring mix made a delightful, as well as colorful, salad.

Vinaigrette is the French culinary term for salad dressing, a diminutive of the French word "vinaigre" (which became "vinegar" in English).

Vinaigre, in turn, simply means "sour wine," etymologically indicating the vinegar-making process in winegrowing countries like France. Exposing the alcohol in wine to air results in oxidation to acetic acid, the tart, or sour, element in vinegar, through the action of special bacteria.

Balsamic vinegar is a more complex and sweet type of vinegar than standard soured wine. It is a slightly thick, deep brown liquid with a balanced sweet and sour flavor. The fragrances and overtones can be remarkable.

Although common in this country only in recent decades, "Aceto Balsamico" goes back to the Middle Ages in Italy, where it is made in the adjacent regions of Modena and Reggio Emilia.

Traditional and modern balsamic vinegars differ in cost and culinary uses.

The classical version, Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale, is vinegar very slowly made from "must," a sweet, cooked-down concentrate of freshly pressed grape juice.

Over 12 years or more, the mixture is transferred from wooden barrel to wooden barrel as it evaporates down and intensifies in flavor and color. Extraordinarily expensive and rare, real balsamic vinegar is dripped sparingly on cheeses, meats, fish and desserts by high-end chefs and gourmet food lovers. This is not something for salad dressings.

More common, and much cheaper, "Aceto Balsamico di Modena," or Balsamic Vinegar of Modena, is a modern mixture that attempts to imitate the original. It typically contains wine vinegar and cooked-down grape juice must -- like what is used in the traditional method -- and is colored with caramelized (burnt) sugar. Influencing their price and quality, modern balsamic vinegars are barrel-aged for differing periods.

Balsamic Vinegar of Modena, the modern vinegar, is the correct one for salad dressings. It also is the vinegar for cooking down to make a "balsamic reduction" to drizzle onto foods.

Since balsamic vinegar already is somewhat sweet from the grape must it contains, I used no additional sugar in making the vinaigrette. The balanced sweet-sour tanginess needed for an exciting vinaigrette already is there. All this vinegar requires to make a great dressing is salt and salad oil. It couldn't be easier.

The recipe makes enough to dress salad for six to eight people. Leftover vinaigrette remains fresh at room temperature for a few days.

Simple Balsamic Vinaigrette

1/3 cup balsamic vinegar

1/4 cup canola oil or mixture of olive and canola oils

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

Mix well.

Moisten lettuce and other salad ingredients with vinaigrette and toss the salad just before serving.

English-style Mushroom Sauce for Beef

My wife Christina's Uncle Fritz, the surviving family member of that generation, has wide culinary tastes.

They include much-maligned British cuisine, a result of his 50 years in England.

Since he was born in Eastern Pennsylvania and once again resides there, you may wonder at the substantive English sojourn.

A teenager during World War II, when Fritz turned 18 he left college -- and his college sweetheart -- to join the Marines.

He was aboard a ship headed for the dreaded invasion of the Japanese homeland when, following the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan precipitously surrendered, sparing countless Allied and Japanese lives.

Mustered out of military service and supported by the G.I. Bill, Fritz finished his university studies at the Sorbonne in recently liberated Paris. He then drifted to England, began working for an international firm, married and raised a family. After being widowed 10 years ago, and with his children grown, he returned to the U.S., tracked down his old college sweetheart and married her.

We met with them for lunch this past summer during our vacation up North.

Several days before that lunch with Fritz and Margie, we had enjoyed one of Fritz's specialty dishes, though prepared by my wife's brother in Virginia.

A mushroom-and-cream sauce touched with sherry, the condiment is intended for topping grilled beef -- in this case a marinated London broil. Fritz's recipe now is "company food" at my brother-in-law's. It does pair well with seared beef.

The sauce seems archetypically British.

However, Fritz told us the actual recipe came from an American grilling cookbook. Clearly, though, a sauce of mushrooms, cream and sherry intended for grilled beef fit with the classic English cooking Fritz had come to appreciate.

The sour cream should have been the giveaway. That is much more typical of American than British cooking, which would more likely employ heavy cream.

Learning that the recipe is only virtually, not purely, English, I had few qualms taking minor liberties with it to intensify several flavors.

The recipe will serve six when spooned over a suitable amount of steak or good-quality burgers. "English" peas or peas and carrots, or alternatively asparagus, along with hearty mashed potatoes might round out the meal.

To accompany a British-style dinner of beef topped with a mushroom-and-cream sauce, I would probably choose a lager beer (chilled is my preference, unlike the style in England) or even a fairly dry hard cider. Otherwise a full-bodied red wine is in order, but the cream and sherry in the sauce make pairing a little tricky. I'd go with a Zinfandel or Merlot.


1 small onion, shredded lengthwise

1 pound fresh mushrooms, cleaned and sliced 1/4-inch wide

2 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons dry sherry

3/4 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

1 cup sour cream

1 teaspoon lemon juice at the end

Prepare the vegetables.

Heat large frying pan to medium hot. Fry onions in butter, stirring frequently, until limp. Add mushrooms. Cover and simmer, stirring frequently, 5 minutes.

Stir in sherry, salt and pepper. After 1 minute, add sour cream. Stir until thoroughly heated. Remove from heat. Stir in lemon juice.

Taste, and add salt if desired. Keep warm, but not hot, to serve over grilled beef.