Vinegar: My rosy return to a pantry classic

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I am thoroughly sick of balsamic vinegar.

I’m tired of its raisiny taste, which is too often saccharine and cloying. And of its syrupy density, not to mention its distinct aroma.

I am fed up with chefs who have insisted on using it to dress salads, marinate poultry, glaze meat and “enliven” grilled vegetables, fruit, cheese and God knows what else.

I am so over balsamic vinegar that I have pushed my bottles to the back of my pantry. In their place: red wine vinegar. That old, acidic staple we used to sprinkle on iceberg when that was the only lettuce around.

Yes, I know that red wine vinegar and balsamic vinegar aren’t interchangeable. Yet I find that I can do just as much with red wine vinegar and enjoy it more. Red wine vinegar is more acidic than balsamic, which, for someone looking for a clean flavor zing, is a good thing.

I’m now using red wine vinegar as my go-to base for vinaigrettes; a delicious Arabian tomato salad I make would be deficient without it. I add it to sauces, including the very best sesame noodle sauce I’ve ever eaten, and to marinades for chicken and beef.

Some of my favorite soups, such as lentil, now feature red wine vinegar, often splashed in at the end to brighten things up. I prefer gazpacho with red wine vinegar even when sherry vinegar is the classic choice. I like my french fries dressed with red wine vinegar, rather than malt vinegar, which to me comes on strong -- more like beer. I’ve been thinking about making a beef stew with sugar and red wine vinegar for that sweet-sour, agrodolce effect.

As its name suggests, red wine vinegar is made from wine allowed to ferment until it becomes sour, at which point it is usually bottled. (The better the wine, the better the vinegar.) Artisanal vinegars are allowed to age in wooden barrels, sometimes for a few years, sometimes longer, a process that allows the taste to become more complex. A vinegar’s flavor mellows the longer it is allowed to age.

The best balsamic vinegars are made in Modena or Reggio Emilia, Italy, from one of several speciality varieties of grapes. These vinegars are aged for at least 12 years and up to 25 years. They are delicious and best consumed unadorned, as a condiment, not mingled with other ingredients. Other balsamics, from North America and elsewhere, are made from wine vinegar blended with grape juice. They can be good, but the product isn’t the same.

That didn’t stop a balsamic craze, sparked by the introduction of Modena Balsamic in the United States in the late 1970s, according to Fine Cooking magazine. Adding balsamic vinegar instantly elevated a dish from ordinary to, well, “gourmet.” You’d get recipes with names such as Bacon-Wrapped Trout Stuffed with Balsamic Onion Compote in Rosemary Cream Sauce.

“When you saw balsamic used at restaurants like Applebee’s, it was a sign that it was time to move on,” says Jeffrey Buben, chef-owner of Vidalia and Bistro Bis in Washington.

In this case, moving on for me is moving back.

One of the beauties of red wine vinegar is that you don’t have to spend a lot of money. But you can. Katz Trio goes for about $10 (375 ml), and others cost more than double that. For a few dollars a bottle, though, you can enjoy, say, Pompeian red wine vinegar.

Pompeian is the No. 1 selling brand in the gourmet wine vinegar segments in both red wine vinegar and balsamic vinegar, according to independent sales data provided by Richard Fryling, the company’s vice president for marketing.

Warm Salad of Slow-Roasted Tomatoes With Almonds

4 to 6 servings.

Adapted from “Vegetarian,” by Alice Hart (Lyons Press, 2012).

For the slow-roasted tomatoes:

6 ripe Roma tomatoes (about 1 pound), stemmed but not cored, then cut in half lengthwise

Salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon sugar

1 tablespoon chopped rosemary leaves

2 small cloves garlic, finely chopped

2 tablespoons olive oil

For the mujadara:

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 large onion, sliced

Salt

1¼ cups dried brown lentils, rinsed and drained

3 cups water

¾ cup brown

basmati rice

For the salad:

Pinch saffron threads

2 tablespoons

boiling water

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

3 tablespoons olive oil

Salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Leaves from 1 large bunch flat-leaf parsley (about 1 cup packed)

1 cup baby spinach leaves

½ heaping cup

labneh or curd cheese (see note)

3 tablespoons sliced almonds, lightly toasted

For the slow-roasted tomatoes: Preheat the oven to 225 degrees. Line two baking sheets with aluminum foil.

Arrange the tomatoes on the baking sheets in a single layer. Sprinkle evenly with salt and pepper to taste, the sugar, rosemary and garlic; drizzle with the oil. Slow-roast for four to six hours or longer; the time will depend on the size of the tomatoes. When they are done, they will be shrunken and a little blackened at the edges.

For the mujadara: Heat the oil in a large saucepan over low heat. Add the onion and a generous pinch of salt, stirring to coat. Cook for 20 minutes to soften the onion, stirring occasionally. Increase the heat to medium and cook for 10 minutes or until the onion is deeply golden, stirring frequently and scraping the bottom of the saucepan to prevent scorching.

Add the lentils and water. Bring to a boil, then cover the saucepan and reduce the heat to medium or medium-low so the water is barely bubbling. Cook for 10 minutes; then stir in the rice, cover and cook for 20 minutes. Remove the saucepan from the heat and let it sit, covered, for 10 minutes.

For the salad: Combine the saffron threads and boiling water in a medium bowl; let soak for five minutes, then whisk in the vinegar and oil to form an emulsified dressing. Season with salt and pepper.

Reserve a small handful of parsley leaves and coarsely chop them. Stir the remaining parsley leaves and the spinach into the mujadara, then mix in the salad dressing.

Transfer the mixture to a large serving bowl or platter. Top with scoops of labneh, the 12 slow-roasted tomato halves, sliced almonds and the reserved chopped parsley. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Notes: The basis of this salad is a mujadara, a traditional Middle Eastern dish combining lentils, caramelized onions and rice; here, brown basmati rice is used for its assertive character. The red wine vinegar lends extra zing. It’s best eaten warm or at room temperature.

Labneh, a soft yogurt cheese, is available at Middle Eastern markets.

Make ahead: The tomatoes need four to six hours roasting time. They can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to two weeks.

Per serving (based on 6): 410 calories, 13 g protein, 50 g carbohydrates, 20 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 190 mg sodium, 9 g dietary fiber, 8 g sugar.

Garlic-Dijon Vinaigrette

Makes 1 cup.

Adapted from “The Simple Art of Eating Well Cookbook,” by Jessie Price and the Eating Well test kitchen (Countryman Press, 2010).

½ cup extra-virgin olive oil

Freshly squeezed juice from 1 or 2 lemons (¼ cup)

¼ cup red wine vinegar

¼ teaspoon salt

Freshly ground black pepper

2 tablespoons Dijon-style mustard

2 cloves minced garlic (about 2 teaspoons)

Whisk together the oil, lemon juice and vinegar in a medium bowl until combined. Season with the salt and pepper (to taste); whisk in the mustard and garlic until emulsified.

Alternatively, combine all the ingredients in a screw-top jar, seal the lid and shake vigorously until emulsified.

Refrigerate for up to one week.

Note: This classic dressing for a green salad can be repurposed as a marinade for meats or vegetables.

Make ahead: The vinaigrette can be refrigerated for up to one week.

Per tablespoon: 60 calories, 0 g protein, 0 g carbohydrates, 7 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 60 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 0 g sugar.

Seasonal Caponata

Makes about 8 cups. (16 side-dish servings or 6 to 8 main-course servings).

Adapted from “Made in Sicily,” by Giorgio Locatelli with Sheila Keating (Ecco, 2011).

1 large eggplant (about 1 pound)

Sea salt

⅔ cup whole black olives in brine

⅓ cup pine nuts

9 slices country bread, cut into cubes of about ¾ inch (about 8 ounces; optional)

5 to 7 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more as needed

1 onion, cut into ¾-inch dice

2 ribs celery, cut into ¾-inch dice

1 tablespoon tomato paste

1 tablespoon sugar, preferably superfine

5 tablespoons good-quality red wine vinegar

Vegetable oil, for deep frying

½ bulb fennel (cored, outer layer removed), cut into ¾-inch dice (about 1½ cups)

1 zucchini, cut into ¾-inch dice

3 plum tomatoes, cut into ¾-inch dice

1 bunch basil

⅓ cup golden raisins

Freshly ground black pepper

Cut the eggplant into 1-inch dice and sprinkle generously with salt. Transfer the eggplant to a colander to drain for 2 to 2½ hours, then squeeze it lightly to get rid of the excess liquid.

Drain the olives and use paper towels to pat them dry, then crush them lightly and remove the pits.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spread the pine nuts in a single layer on a baking sheet. Bake for about eight minutes or until they are golden brown, shaking them once or twice so they brown evenly. Let cool.

Spread the cubes of bread, if using, on a separate baking sheet, and toast for five to 12 minutes (at 350 degrees) or until golden. Let cool.

Heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onion, celery and olives and cook until soft but not colored, about 10 minutes, then add the tomato paste. Stir the sugar and vinegar together in a small bowl until the sugar has dissolved, then add to the skillet. Bring to a boil, then transfer the skillet mixture to a large mixing bowl.

Meanwhile, line the counter or a large baking sheet with several layers of paper towels. Pour about 2 inches of vegetable oil into a deep saucepan, making sure the oil comes no farther than one-third of the way up the sides, and heat over medium-high to 350 degrees.

Add the fennel and deep-fry it for one to two minutes. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the fennel to the paper towels. Wait until the oil returns to 350 degrees, then repeat with the eggplant, followed by the zucchini.

Add the drained vegetables to the mixing bowl, then add the tomatoes. Tear the basil leaves into small pieces, letting them fall into the bowl along with the raisins and pine nuts. Add the remaining 4 to 6 tablespoons of the olive oil, to taste; season with salt and pepper to taste, then toss gently to combine. Cover with plastic wrap while the vegetables are still warm and leave at room temperature for two hours to infuse the flavors. Twenty minutes before serving, mix in the toasted bread cubes and leave at room temperature to infuse.

Notes: A traditional Sicilian dish, caponata is served as a salad, side dish or relish. The basic ingredients are eggplant, onions, tomatoes, olives and vinegar, but beyond that there are many variations. The vegetables are fried separately to maintain the integrity of each flavor. It’s meant to be a symphony of sweet and sour.

Chef Giorgio Locatelli allows that dieters may grill the vegetables, but he says the flavor from frying them is far superior. You’ll need a thermometer for deep-frying.

Make ahead: The eggplant needs to drain for two to 2½ hours. The caponata needs to sit for two hours (for the flavors to develop).

Per 1/2-cup serving: 120 calories, 1 g protein, 8 g carbohydrates, 10 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 45 mg sodium, 2 g dietary fiber, 4 g sugar

Noodles With Spicy Sauce

Makes about 6 cups (4 to 6 servings).

Adapted from a 60-Minute Gourmet recipe in The New York Times.

1 teaspoon chicken bouillon paste or 1 chicken bouillon cube

8 ounces fine dried egg noodles (may substitute spaghetti; see headnote)

1 teaspoon plus 1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil

⅓ cup tahini (sesame paste)

1 to 2 tablespoons finely chopped garlic

2 teaspoons Sriracha (hot chili sauce)

3 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar, plus a splash for serving

3 to 4 tablespoons canola oil

Bring about 6 cups of water to a boil in a large pot over high heat. Add the chicken bouillon and stir until dissolved. Add the egg noodles and cook according to the package directions (until al dente). Drain in a colander, reserving at least ¼ cup of the water. Let the noodles cool to room temperature.

Transfer the cooled noodles to a serving bowl; drizzle 1 teaspoon of the toasted sesame oil over them and toss to coat.

Whisk together the tahini, the garlic (to taste), 3 tablespoons of the reserved pasta cooking water, the Sriracha, soy sauce, red wine vinegar, the canola oil and the remaining toasted sesame oil in a separate bowl or deep measuring cup, to form an emulsified dressing; whisk in more of the water as needed. Pour over the noodles and toss to coat evenly. Serve at room temperature, with a splash of red wine vinegar on top, or chilled.

Notes: The original recipe called for poaching a bone-in chicken breast, then adding its cooked, shredded meat, but these noodles are good plain or with shredded carrots and scallions tossed in. Regular spaghetti can be used instead of the fine egg noodles called for here.

Make ahead: The noodles can be refrigerated for up to three days.

Per 1-cup serving: 320 calories, 8 g protein, 32 g carbohydrates, 18 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 30 mg cholesterol, 390 mg sodium, 3 g dietary fiber, 1 g sugar.