I had my first experience with balsamic vinegar, the bona fide aged article from Modena in Emilia Romagna, while working in a gourmet grocery store in rural Rhode Island in 1981. I remember the occasion because it involved tasting a small drizzle atop strawberries and I thought it was a prank. The taste was transformative. Imagine sweet-tart strained through a bottle of Chateau Margaux. The combination has remained with me ever since. You can catch an echo of that experience in this week’s Seared Salmon with Strawberries, Rose Water and Balsamic Vinegar.
Believe it or not, there was a time when balsamic vinegar was not found in every supermarket salad dressing aisle in America. In 1981 balsamico (balsamic vinegar ) was about as well known in the US as fennel pollen, i.e. hardly at all beyond a coterie of close readers of the New York Times or cognoscenti of regional Italian food. Balsamic vinegar has since firmly established itself as an important component of the American larder (fennel pollen, not so much). According to Cooks Illustrated 45% of all vinegar sales in the US in 2007 were for balsamic vinegar. I can’t think of a single ingredient in the last thirty years that has been as enthusiastically embraced by Americans, except for olive oil.
The problem is, almost all of what’s sold in American today is balsamico only in the way that California Burgundy is Burgundy. Actually it’s worse. No one in France produces cheap wine for the American market and then calls it Burgundy. But Italian companies are more than willing to manufacture and market “Aceto Balsamico” to Americans that could never be legally labelled as such in Italy.
Genuine balsamic vinegar requires region-specific grapes (usually white Trebbiano), artisanal craft (cooking grape must, processing it in mixed batches through a sequence of barrels made of different wood) and time (a minimum of 12 years), all of which push its cost skyward. Real balsamic is unctuous, syrupy and, like other rare foodstuffs, makes for a dizzying burst of olfactory sweet-tart grace notes that keep you tasting it again and again, trying to puzzle your way through the pleasure of it all. And it only comes from a pair of small subsections of the Emilia Romagna region. Degrees of quality are spelled out, by Italian law, through the labeling. No US laws define the content of “balsamic vinegar.” In fact, should I decide to go out and create a concoction of white vinegar, sugar and caramel coloring no legal obstacles prevent me from labeling and marketing it as “Ken’s Genuine Balsamic Vinegar”.
What’s a home cook to do, especially one who doesn’t want to spend $100 on a bottle of aged vinegar? Well, if you’re like us, you divide your affections. The least expansive option is Monari Federzoni–look in your grocery store, you’ll recognize the familiar green label. It’s made with about 30% grape must and unaged wine vinegar. You can buy a pint bottle for $5. For a few bucks more you can get a 17-ounce bottle of Whole Foods’ 365 Aged Balsamic Vinegar of Modena. This is our everyday b.v. The label includes an IGP seal, which means it is a protected product with a specific geographical designation. However, this is the lowest designation of quality in the labeling of balsamic vinegar and in practice while not quite worthless as a guarantor of integrity we don’t take it as a guarantee of anything. The taste is fine. For. What. It. Is. But contrasting it with the bottle of the high-end stuff we own is like expecting a bottle of Two-Buck Chuck to give Gigondas a run for its money. It ain’t gonna happen and to expect the same experience from both bottles is foolish. We save our good stuff for a very thin drizzle over perfect strawberries or, rarely, a great cheese. We don’t cook with it or use it on salads. We dole it out the the way we use garum–drop by drop. The rest of the time, including in this recipe, we go with the 365. I’m sure there are other equally satisfactory low-end stand-ins. If you have a favorite, let us know. I’m always looking for alternatives.
If you want to educate yourself, you might read this summary from Formaggio Kitchen, a Boston area gourmet food vendor, about the specific requirements for certification as aceto balsamico tradizionale (the traditional artisan product). You might also take a look at this piece I found on the website of Zingerman’s, where we sometimes order garum. We have, per usual, no relationship with either vendor except as occasional (paying) customers.
That first taste of strawberries and balsamico was given to me by my future wife, also working at the store. Had you asked me at the time I would have considered both combinations–Jody and me; strawberries and vinegar–to be improbable. But, well, we’re still together, and this week’s post includes strawberries and balsamic vinegar. Unorthodox marriages do sometimes succeed. Enjoy. Ken
Seared Salmon with Strawberries, Rose Water and Balsamic Vinegar
- 4 wild salmon fillets, about 4 ounces each
- 1 + teaspoons cracked black pepper
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
- 1 cup Vidalia onion, cut into ¼ inch dice
- 3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
- 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
- 2 teaspoons rosewater
- ¼ cup small or torn basil leaves
- 12 large strawberries, washed, dried, stem removed and cut in half lengthwise
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- Season the salmon fillets with pepper and salt on the flesh side and salt only on the skin.
- Heat half the vegetable oil in a large saute pan over medium-high heat. Add the salmon, skin side down, sear until the skin is charred and crisp, about 4 minutes. Transfer the fish to a plate, skin side up, and reduce the heat under the pan to medium.
- Add 1 tablespoon of the olive oil, the onions, and 1 teaspoon cracked peppercorns, season with salt and cook until tender, about 5 minutes. Add 2 tablespoons of the vinegar and ¼ cup water and simmer 3 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the remaining olive oil, 1 teaspoon rosewater and half the basil leaves. Add the fillets, skin side up, and remove from the heat. The heat in the pan should finish cooking the fish.
- Heat the remaining vegetable oil in a cast iron pan over high heat. Dip the cut side of each strawberry half in the sugar and put, sugar side down in the pan and cooked until caramelized, about 1 minute. Take care, this will happen quickly. Turn the heat down if they are going from brown to black too quickly. Transfer to a platter, caramelized side up. Pour the rosewater into the remaining tablespoon of balsamic vinegar and pour over the strawberries.
- Serve the fish with the strawberries and sprinkle with the remaining basil leaves.
Sometimes I surprise myself. Salmon and strawberries? During the 90′s when chefs were putting fruit and proteins together in crazy ways with abandon, I steered clear. I was, however, seduced early on by dried fruit in sweet-and-sour combinations with just about anything. My family wasn’t as enthusiastic. There was many a dinner when I watched Roxanne and Oliver build piles of raisins on the side of their plates. So when I was roaming the grocery store aisles, and the idea of strawberries and salmon popped into my head as a potential, if somewhat awkward, spring pairing, I stopped to consider. By the time I got home I had wrapped it all up with the classic Italian strawberry seasoning of balsamic vinegar and peppercorns and then threw in a ringer–the rose water. As I headed into the cooking of the recipe, I wasn’t convinced I’d hit on a winner, but what’s life without risks?
It was delicious. Even Roxanne liked it!