Red wine vinegar (Recipe: beet-cucumber relish)
Last April, after a cooking class in my kitchen for the 16 women in my friend Laura's book group, I found two large unfinished bottles of wine, one red, one white. I'd read about making wine vinegar by simply exposing wine to air for at least three weeks, so I popped the corks, marked VINEGAR on each bottle, and let them hang out in the kitchen.
Red wine vinegar, the go-to vinegar in French cuisine and a popular choice for salad dressings everywhere, is made from matured red wine, so it stands to reason that the better the wine, the better the vinegar. When the ethanol in the wine is allowed to oxidize, or is in contact with a starter (yes, just like sourdough bread), it forms acetic acid (vinegar).
You can buy good red wine vinegars in any market. Cooks Illustrated conducted a tasting of ten brands, and discovered a couple of supermarket vinegars, including Pompeian (above), that passed muster with their two dozen testers. I have both homemade and store-bought in the pantry.
My homemade vinegar started life as a 2004 Beaujolais Villages, but a few weeks into the process, I added another bit of leftover red wine, and then, a few weeks later, a cup of yet another vino. So now my vinegar is a mutt — a mildly acidic, pleasant blend, perfect for my summer panzanella and the chutney we make when our pears ripen in the Fall. I'll decant most of my vinegar into another bottle and cork it to stop the oxidization, but I'll leave a quarter cup in the bottle to act as a starter for the next batch.
Wayne Hansen, our local organic farmer, brought two varieties of baby beets to market this weekend. These first-of-the-season beets were the size of chocolate truffles — a harbinger of the beautiful striped Chioggia, Golden Globe, Detroit Dark, and cylindrical beets to come later in the summer. This recipe makes 3 cups of relish, a perfect accompaniment to grilled chicken, salmon or flank steak.
4 large or 6 medium beets, scrubbed, peeled, and diced
2 cucumbers, peeled, seeded and diced
10 scallions, minced
2-1/2 cups red wine vinegar
1/2 cup brown sugar
3 Tbsp minced fresh dill weed
1/2 tsp black pepper
1/2 tsp kosher salt
Combine all ingredients in a stainless steel or other nonreactive saucepan over low heat. Stirring occasionally, cook uncovered for 45 minutes, or until the beets are easily pierced with a fork. Let the mixture cool to room temperature, then refrigerate. Relish will keep for 7-10 days, or, while still hot, pack into sterilized jars and process in a boiling-water bath for 20 minutes.