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.


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