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!
I need more fish in my life… I’m not usually a huge fan of salmon, but of balsamic & strawberries, count me in! Thank you for the education on the vinegar – I had no idea! Now I’ll have a go-to, whereas before I would stand hopelessly in front of the aisle wondering how bad of a decision I was about to make. Absolutely beautiful photography, as always, and is that your counter tops that you’re shooting on!? Whatever it is – it’s gorgeous!
Hi, Jessica–Thanks for the kind words. I’m shooting atop a low table on which I’ve placed a sheet of handmade paper. I WISH it were our countertops. Ken
Smashing, fabulous post!! Inspring cooking and great photography, love it! :-)
Dina, we’ll have fish tonight…
This is one of the rare ways that I enjoy fish with fruit. I don’t usually belly up to the bar for pineapple salsa to go with my grilled tuna. I think you’ll enjoy this though. Thanks for commenting. Ken
Yes! So elegant.
It’s the food stylist–she does such a good job! :-) Ken
I am really inspired to make this. Now is the time because the strawberries are bright red all the way through and the Copper River Salmon has made it’s way to our markets. I learn so much from your blog. Not only fantastic ingredient combinations but technique too! I know I sound like a broken record but I really appreciate all of your “instructional” photographs. Always such a pleasure to scroll through and very useful too.
Thank you for the comment about the photographs. That’s good to hear. I was beginning to wonder how many people actually looked at the collage–and whether it was worth continuing. Glad you appreciated the b.v. info – God knows I was salivating reading about some of them. I want someone to open one of those $300 bottles and offer me a spoonful. :-) Ken
This really is a beautiful recipe for summer. I am with Seana from T.C.G.H… the Copper River salmon would shine here. Greg recently picked me up the 10-year aged balsamic at Zingerman’s ($35). Trader Joe’s also has a balsamic of Modena ($5-10). I am with you on the WF balsamic of Modena variety for everyday use; it’s lovely. Now, to pick up some more balsamic vinegar (we go through the good stuff fast!) and make this dish! Can you imagine how happy and impressed company would be to enjoy such a colorful, fresh and original plate?
I’m sure company would be impressed if you cooked it. I realized I may have come across as a bit severe about the IGP designation. The thing is, an IGP vinegar can be quite tasty, but it can also be crap, depending on the ethics of the producer. Zingerman’s is a great resource. Ken
Ken, I ordered some “Fattoria Estense Siver Label, Aceto Balsamico di Modena, Aged 10 years” today. Here’s hoping. It will go so well with my favorite EVOO of the moment, Marques De Valdueza Extra Virgin Olive Oil, also available through Zingerman’s. Your post was SEVERELY delicious.
It is an interesting combination, but I can see how the basil and vinegar kind of tie all of the flavors together and elevates them! Thanks for the beautiful history on balsamic vinegar. It really is such a treasure. I have strawberries in my fridge right now and this post made me want to go home, pan roast them and drizzle them with balsamic. Such a great seasonal dish. I love the way that onion is so professionally chopped. Great photo!
Thanks, Amanda. One of the treats of the summer. You can drizzle it on a few other things later in the season (really good peaches, for example) and like I mentioned, there’s always cheese. The onion is easy–just chop ten thousand and I guarantee you’ll have it down cold. Ken
Love this combination and can see how all the flavors play off one another. Happy week-end, great recipe!
Hi, Cheri–Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. It’s graduation week in this house, so it will be a good weekend. :-) Ken
Amazing colours!I cook fish regularly and your dish looks mouth watering!Amazing presentation too!I will surely try this :)
Thank you–it was fun to cook and photograph. Good luck with your blog! Ken
Thank You! :)
so good! i love balsamico from Modena!!!! I’m Italian! greetings from Italy!
Thank for stopping by. We LOVE Italy! I’m sure we’ll be back there soon (In October we’re cycling in Sardinia). And yes, balsamico is wonderful. Ken
you are always welcome in Italy
you are always welcome in Italy
hmmm. To me, you seem like a perfect match! A great post. Gorgeous photos as always. Question. I love the idea of the floral rose water, but doesn’t the BV overpower it? Question. Is white balsamic a real thing, as in authentically Italian? I have always doubted it, but never cared to look it up, because it’s so good. I used it to make strawberry balsamic recently and it was pretty incredible.
You know, I assumed that white balsmic was that way because it simply used exclusively white grapes, i.e. trebbiano, instead of the traditional blend of trebbiano and lambrusco in higher quality balsamic vinegars.
I was wrong.
Turns out that trebbiano grape must will also caramelize and turn dark if cooked down in the traditional artisanal way over an open flame. Instead, it’s cooked under pressure so it doesn’t caramelize – and then it’s also aged only a year, instead of the traditional 12 years. Pressure cooking grape must is a controversial technique for some producers. Among other things, it allows to produce a must VERY quickly that’s VERY thick, so when it’s blended with other aged wine vinegar (the usual recipe for balsamic vinegar) the resulting product will mimic the viscosity of a much older – and more expensive – product. With a little caramel coloring it can be difficult to distinguish between the genuine article and a cheaper imitation by appearance alone. All of this also varies from producer to producer. Some are quite candid about using pressure cooking in their lower end vinegars; others, not so. ALL white balsamic vinegar is pressure cooked. If you like the flavor (I haven’t tried it, but now you’ve intrigued me) I’m sure it’s fine for most uses.
I found out, after the fact, that Jody drizzled some of our expensive stuff on the strawberries. No wonder it tasted so amazing. :-) Ken
Thanks for this!!! I really like white balsamic, but I’m a vinegar freak. It has a sweetness to it, but has the viscosity or normal vinegar. I especially love it over salads with fruit. And real balsamic, especially the really good stuff, is a completely different animal in my book. There’s no comparison. I’ll keep using white balsamic!
Trying this fabulous idea today for my mother-in-law’s 88th birthday dinner. Any wine pairing suggestion?
Good luck. Try a bone dry rose.
This looks extremely good. I don’t like vinegar or anything sour in general (did I tell you that? ^^) and I didn’t even like balsamico until I discovered this: http://www.surlatable.com/product/PRO-544064/Balsamo-Divino-Balsamic-Vinegar which I use in dressing salads.
I think you’d like this, Ayo, even with our lowly balsamic vinegar. Pretty fancy stuff you’ve got there for everyday use. :-) Ken
P.S. Today is Roxanne’s h.s. graduation–we made pots de crème for the after party, with lemon curd.
Truly delicious food preparation. I remember the surprise the first time I had balsamic, black pepper and strawberries. The combination with salmon and basil is inspirational.
Thanks, Conor. Hope your ride went well. Ken
Pretty happy with it Ken. We won’t know how the overall fund raising is until late in this week. I managed an average of just north of 31kph for the 100k. Not bad for an old codger like myself.
31kph! Holy cow! You can ride with my wife – I’ll hold down the reservation in the restaurant. Ken
Oh. My. Goodness. I’m not big on fish, but this… this looks glorious. I am a big balsamic-strawberry-basil gal. You two are a really fantastic team. Down here in the south strawberries are on their way out (still there, but not the greatest quality anymore), so I will be saving this for next spring.
You’re not alone in the end-of-strawberries season. Other readers from earlier warmer climes complained about the same problem. This is going to sound really strange, but you can do the same recipe–with great, if different results–with diced peaches. Thanks for the kind words. Ken
Ohh! That does sound wonderful. I will have to try that.
Wow! An amazingly delicious recipe! Congrats for this experience.
Absolutely exquisite! and an innovative combination of ingredients…
Thanks. With all of your international hopping about I hope you get a chance to give it a try. :-) Ken
The verdict in the Parr household: I enjoyed it very much. My husband was confused by all the different flavors. To be fair, I should have told him to expect rosewater so he had a bit of trouble deciphering what he was eating. Lilli, the 16-month-old, enjoyed hers very much. She flicked off the basil and went to town.
Ha! That’s great. I think the rose water adds an interesting element, but the dish can work without it too. Thanks for letting me know. Ken
“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.”- I LOVE LOVE LOVED this ending. And am going to absolutely try this yummy sounding recipe. I wait patiently for your PesceVegan Kosher recipes, and here is one worth the wait! -Liri
Wow, this looks yummy! I have always had a love for balsamic and strawberries together, but never thought to include salmon. I will have to try this out the next time I cook some on my smoker!
I’ll trade strawberries and balsamic for BBQ! I’m curious how the smoke would work out. Keep us posted if you try it. If I ever find myself in your neck of the woods we’ll stop by for ribs. Ken
WOW this jumped out of the screen at me. I am going to make it for sure. Yum. Love the combinations. Can almost taste it now. Love the originality of it. Thanks Torie
I think you’ll like it if you can get decent strawberries. Ken