White vinegar and volcanoes (Recipe: pineapple-cucumber salad)
Once upon a time -- okay, it was just a few weeks ago -- I found five (five) bottles of distilled white vinegar in my pantry.
I'm not a pickle fanatic.
I'm not a brine fanatic.
I'm most definitely not a window-cleaning fanatic.
I used to be able to keep inventory in my head of everything that I had in the pantry. For a few months, I kept forgetting that I have vinegar, and every time I passed it in the supermarket aisle, I'd buy more. And more. And more.
If you are not old, you might not recognize this for what it is: a cautionary tale, a heads-up, a peek into your future. When you are old like me, you will, I promise, develop a mental block against some item in your pantry, and you will buy it even when it is not on your grocery list. And each time, you'll place it on the shelf, next to the one you bought the week before. You'll mutter to yourself, oh phoo, I already have this.
Yes, the block passes -- but it passes to another item. Just when you finally stop buying one item, you find you've started stockpiling insane quantities of something else: cocoa powder, or frozen peas, or brown lentils or bamboo skewers or dried lasagna noodles or turmeric.
For more than 5,000 years, vinegar has been made the same way, by the fermentation of natural sugars to alcohol, and then further fermentation to vinegar. Almost anything that contains sugar can ferment into vinegar: wine, of course, but also molasses, dates, sorghum, fruits, berries, melons, coconut, honey, beer, maple syrup, potatoes, beets, malt, grains -- and distilled alcohol, which is the base of white vinegar.
According to the US Department of Agriculture, vinegar sold at retail must contain a minimum of 4% acidity (the amount of acetic acid present). White vinegar is generally 5% but can be as high as 7%; the acidity is always printed somewhere on the label.
If you're planning to use vinegar for pickled vegetables, don't use homemade vinegar unless you test the acidity level. Vinegar is a self-preservative (it will last for many years in your pantry; no need to refrigerate), and low-acid vinegars are fine for salad dressings. But to kill bacteria in a preserved food, the acidity should be at least 4 percent.
From The Vinegar Institute, here's a recipe of a different kind, guaranteed to add excitement in your kitchen (or, better yet, in the back yard):
How to build a volcano: First, make the cone of the volcano. Mix 6 cups flour, 2 cups salt, 4 Tbsp cooking oil and 2 cups of water. The resulting mixture should be smooth and firm (more water may be added if needed). Stand a soda bottle in a baking pan and mold the dough around it into a volcano shape. Do not cover the hole or drop dough into it. Fill the bottle most of the way full with warm water and a bit of red food color (can be done before sculpting if you work quickly so the water stays warm). Add 6 drops of detergent to the bottle contents. Add 2 Tbsp baking soda to the liquid. Slowly pour vinegar into the bottle. Watch out -- eruption time!
And remember: vinegar kills weeds in your garden.
Cantonese pineapple-cucumber salad
In the Asian market last week, I saw a jar of pickled shallots. Something about their pink-ness cried "Spring is here!", and I remembered this recipe, a family favorite from Brian Jung. Serves 6.
1 large English (seedless) cucumber, peeled and sliced paper-thin
2 small carrots, peeled, cut into 1-inch matchsticks
1 tsp kosher salt
1/2 cup white vinegar
6 Tbsp sugar
12 pickled shallots, sliced paper-thin, + 1 Tbsp juice reserved from the jar
1 16-oz can pineapple in heavy syrup, drained, + 4 Tbsp syrup reserved from the can
1 Tbsp toasted white or black sesame seeds
Place cucumber and carrots in a colander over a bowl and sprinkle with salt. Weight down with a plate, and allow to sit 20 minutes. In the meantime, heat the vinegar and sugar in a small sauce pan, until the sugar dissolves. Remove from heat. Rinse the cucumber and carrots under cold water and drain. Place in a bowl or large jar with shallots and reserved shallot juice, pineapple and reserved pineapple syrup, and the vinegar solution, and refrigerate for several hours or overnight. To Serve garnished with sesame seeds.