Sunday, December 21, 2014

Field to Fork: When local is 5,974 miles away


From page A8 | February 26, 2014 |

What form of twisted reasoning can I employ to permit the topic to be balsamic vinegar?

Customarily, “local” in the food sphere means up to an hour or two on the road for a pickup truck heading to the Davis Farmers Market. Or, it means within 100 miles, as supermarkets sometimes say. Or, grown in the state of California, as the same supermarkets also tout.

But balsamic? We have to stretch “local” unconscionably to mean inside of 5,974 miles. That’s the distance from downtown Davis to Modena and Reggio Emilia, Italy, the only places on the planet authorized to produce traditional balsamic vinegar.

Yes, today I sin. This space is regularly about locally sourced food. My writer’s dilemma is, locally grown food is so easily enhanced by a tiny pour from a bottle of balsamic vinegar in one’s pantry. My sin, then, is hopefully on the side of the angels.

I first encountered balsamic vinegar on a trip to Italy about 15 years ago. It was our first time in Europe, and we were sightseeing in the Tuscan countryside.

We saw a sign and pulled into the Castello di Verrazzano — yes, ex-New Yorkers, the family’s ancestry includes the Verrazzano for whom the suspension bridge between Brooklyn and Staten Island is named. The castle is in Tuscany, not Modena, but they make a notable balsamic vinegar that compares well.

We were hooked. Balsamic vinegar is a syrup, really, created by fermentation and evaporation using the sweet Trebbiano grape. It ages in wood. It has a complex sweetness, with a faint tang of vinegar. And it’s a game-changer when used on the various fresh produce we have available.

By now, you’ve almost certainly had at least salad dressing with balsamic vinegar. It’s common in restaurants. As with many things, there is the traditional, authorized balsamic vinegar protected under Italian designation, aged 12 to 25 years, and very costly. And then there’s the more common stuff for the masses. In this case, it’s the balsamic vinegar of Modena, minus the word “traditional.”

If you’re buying balsamic vinegar for the first time, the store offerings can be daunting. Some of it is very pricey. Some is second-rate. As with tequila, there are grades that go low (mixto) or high (anejo).

A noted chef shared his culinary school trick with me about balsamic vinegar. Buy a bottle of Costco’s Kirkland Balsamic Vinegar of Modena. It’s about $10 for a liter. It’s aged in wood, certified and won a taste-test of medium-level balsamic vinegars on a tasting panel at the Orange County Register. For a more intense, syrupy, intense flavor, let it simmer on the lowest heat for a long time until its volume is reduced by half.

— Dan Kennedy, a Davis resident, has a long history with the bounty of gardens and small farms. Reach him at

The recipes

Below are some good applications of balsamic vinegar to enhance the fresh produce available locally.

* Balsamic salad dressing: Ideal for heartier green salads, such as arugula, spinach and baby kale. It can be too heavy for the feathery “spring greens.”

The ingredients:
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
2 garlic cloves, finely minced (optional)
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Putting it together:
Whisk together in a bowl all ingredients but the olive oil. Then drizzle that in, slowly, while continuing to whisk. Consider multiplying the recipe and storing the extra in the refrigerator for the days ahead.

* Balsamic for grilled vegetables: Grill peppers, squash, onions, sweet potato, zucchini, eggplant or other favorites that have been salted and tossed lightly in olive oil. Remove from grill, drizzle and toss with a tablespoon or so (to taste) of balsamic vinegar. Consider making extra vegetables for another day, as grilled vegetables reheat reasonably well. When reheating, apply a light drizzle of balsamic just before serving.

* Balsamic glaze for salmon: Really fresh, wild salmon deserves to stand on its own for flavor, but with farmed or previously frozen salmon, a glaze adds welcome personality.

The ingredients:
1/4 cup each of balsamic vinegar and water
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
3 teaspoons light brown sugar

Putting it together:
Whisk together. After cooking salmon fillets in a hot pan, hopefully getting a crust on the skin side, remove fish and immediately add this tangy sauce to the hot pan. It will bubble immediately. Reduce heat, stir while it reduces by half through evaporation, just a minute or two. Pour on salmon fillets and serve.



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