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Sunday, December 17 News

Acid trip: Exploring vinegars from around the world

I’ve just been on an acid trip. No, not that kind. “Acid Trip — Travels in the World of Vinegar,” is a new book by Michael Harlan Turkell, recounting his journeys around the world — visiting chefs, gathering recipes, tasting local vinegars, and slaking his thirst for this most versatile and important ingredient.

If you could pry loose some cooking secrets from a top-notch chef, you’d find that acid is the difference between really exciting, satisfying food and the rest of what we eat. A splash of tangy vinegar brightens flavors, adds aroma, and takes you from good and great.

Culinary star April Bloomfield, chef/owner at Manhattan’s Spotted Pig told Turkell, “the most boring food in the world is that without acidity.” There’s no doubt that the other chefs in Acid Trip would agree.

Turkell, an accomplished food photographer with credits including Jeremy Sewall’s “The New England Kitchen,” is an experienced restaurant cook, too. But he was bitten by the vinegar bug after a taste of Gegenbauer Noble Sour P.X., a snappy and seductive schnapps alternative from Vienna with a vinegar kick instead of alcohol. He’s been pursuing vinegar around the world ever since.

In French, aigre means sour and vin aigre is sour wine - vinegar! It’s made when bacteria converts alcohol to acetic acid. Anything that can be fermented can make vinegar. Wine and cider are the most common, but any food with starch or sugar from fruit to potatoes, wheat to rice, even honey and maple syrup can be made into vinegar.

If you leave a half bottle of wine open on the kitchen counter for a few weeks, you might get vinegar. It could be that easy, but for making the good stuff, considerably more precision, care, and science is needed. Turkell says how easy it is to make vinegar at home but then goes on for 15 pages of how-to. The sky’s the limit on flavor and ingredients. Some of his favorites are: coconut rice, triple berry, ginger, dried cherry, and Negroni.

Turkell must have had a great time on his travels to explore the universe of vinegar. There are chapters for France, Italy, Austria, Japan, and North America. In each, he introduces us to fascinating chefs or vinegar-makers, tells the story of the local product, and gives some recipes. In fact, Acid Trip is really a cookbook, packed with enticing recipes both simple and complex, familiar and exotic, appealing and appalling.

On my to-cook list, I’m adding some from the book including: Daniel Boulud’s poulet au vinaigre; leeks vinaigrette from Michel Troisgros; sauce caramello from Barbara Lynch; sauerbraten (the ultimate vinegar braise); brown butter balsamic mushrooms; and Hugh Acheson’s cider-vinegar braised pork shoulder. I’ll skip the Parmesan ice cream with cherry balsamic and the Moxie vinegar.

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The book introduces a tempting array of new-to-me vinegars, but the one we’re most familiar with is balsamic. Dark, rich, sweet-tart balsamic vinegar is made from Trebbiano or Lambrusco grapes in the northern Italian region of Reggio Emilia. The grape juice is boiled to 30 percent of its original volume and then aged in wood barrels. The best is aged for 12 years or more for a rich, complex character and syrupy texture. To meet worldwide demand, most balsamic is produced with industrial methods, which means no boiling, no barrel time, and minimal aging. You get what you pay for.

At New Canaan Olive Oil Heidi Burrows has assembled a collection of over 30 balsamic vinegars including the traditional dark, along with white and fruit-infused. The traditional vinegars get thicker and sweeter with more age. Fig is her most popular infusion. White balsamic, with a more delicate flavor, is made with white grapes and is not barrel-aged. New Canaan Olive Oil also has a 50/50 blend of white balsamic and champagne vinegar great for dressings and marinades as well as a sherry vinegar from Spain.

Turkell tantalizes with descriptions of vinegars from around the world, but does not give sources for getting them. When the recipe calls for Orléans-style white wine vinegar, there’s no source named. An internet search will turn up some hard-to-find flavors. Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s have a pretty broad range of choice. Keep your eye out at regional markets and farm stands for locally made products. I found several artisanal vinegars at the Taste of NY market on the Taconic Parkway. Excellent vinegars made in California can be ordered from Sparrow Lane.

I like to keep a few choices on my vinegar shelf, from everyday Pompeian red wine to exotic apple cider balsamic. Try adding a splash to what you're cooking or get Acid Trip and explore Turkell’s world of cooking with vinegar. It will broaden your culinary horizons!

Frank Whitman’s Not Bread Alone column runs every Thursday in The Norwalk Hour. Frank can be reached at NotBreadAloneFW@gmail.com.

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