You're not going to believe me when I tell you there is no balsamic vinegar in The Perfect Pantry.
Of course there is, you will say.
You write about balsamic vinegar all the time, you'll point out. And look at the label on the bottle. It says balsamic vinegar. Of Modena. It-a-ly.
You won't be wrong, exactly, but you won't be absolutely correct, either.
Every year, only 3,000 or so bottles of true balsamic vinegar are designated aceto balsamico tradizionale and given the Denominazione di Origine Protetta (D.O.P.), the seal of authenticity from the consortia of Modena and Reggio Emilia.
Each of those 3,000 bottles has aged for a minimum of 12 years, many for 25 up to 100 years.
True balsamico is made not from wine, but from unfermented Trebbiano grape pressings, boiled down to a dark syrup. The syrup is placed into oak kegs, along with a "mother" or starter, usually a bit of previously aged balsamico. As it ages, the vinegar is decanted to smaller and smaller kegs made of a variety of woods -- chestnut, cherry, ash, mulberry, and juniper -- each of which adds character and flavor to the vinegar. Over time, moisture evaporates from the kegs, thickening the vinegar and concentrating the taste.
The resulting vinegar, the true tradizionale, proudly carries the D.O.P. mark on the label. And it doesn't sell for $6.99. (If you want to taste the real thing, without mortgaging your home to buy a bottle, try this lovely little sampler from Zingerman's. Or mortgage the house for this.)
What we outside Italy call balsamic vinegar is often really balsamic condiment, a blend of grape must and red wine vinegar. (See the label? No D.O.P. No tradizionale.) In Italy, this would be called condimento. The quality varies from maker to maker, depending on the quality and blend of grape must and wine vinegar used.
This is the balsamic to use for cooking, and, if it's a very good condimento like my favorite Rubio, to use on salad, with strawberries, on bruschetta, on beets, or drizzled on chunks of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.
A fruity twist on the classic summer soup. Serves 8-10.
2 slices of day-old Italian bread, crusts removed
3-4 large tomatoes, very ripe, cut into chunks
1-2 Kirby (pickling) cucumbers, seeded, cut into chunks
1/4 cup finely chopped onion
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 green bell pepper, seeded, cut into chunks
1 yellow bell pepper, seeded, cut into chunks
1 red bell pepper, seeded, cut into chunks
1 ripe mango, peeled, cut into chunks
2 tsp mint leaves, chopped (or more to taste)
1/4 cup basil leaves, chopped
2 Tbsp balsamic vinegar
1 cup V-8 juice
Black pepper, to taste
2-3 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil, optional
Tear bread into chunks and soak in cold water for 1 minute. Remove, and squeeze out the water. Add bread to a large stainless steel bowl, along with next 10 ingredients. Using an immersion blender (or in batches in a regular blender), puree the mixture until it is a pleasing soup-like consistency, but still with distinct bits of vegetables. Add balsamic, V-8 juice and black pepper, to taste. Stir in the olive oil. Cover and chill for at least 1 hour, or overnight, to allow flavors to mingle. Serve cold.
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