Red wine vinegar (Recipe: fennel, pear and olive salad)
Back in the day, which wasn't all that long ago, red wine vinegar stood front-and-center in most home kitchens.
Back in the day, champagne vinegar was expensive, sherry vinegar was more expensive, raspberry vinegar was unheard-of, and cider vinegar was what happened when you didn't finish all of the apple cider in the jug from the local orchard.
Back in the day, rice wine vinegar was used only for Asian cooking, by Asian cooks, and sold only in Asian markets.
Back in the day, balsamic was elusive, the secret ingredient of chefs and a favored souvenir of travelers to Italy.
Red wine vinegar -- affordable and available in every supermarket and mini-mart -- fulfilled almost every home cook's need for acid, back in the day. And, apart from distilled white vinegar that was used for cleaning windows and killing weeds and making pickles, it had the vinegar shelf in my pantry pretty much to itself.
These days that vinegar shelf is crowded, but red wine vinegar still plays an important role in my cooking, as an ingredient that brightens gravies, stews and sauces, and dresses salads with Mediterranean-inspired ingredients.
How can you tell if the red wine vinegar you buy is a good vinegar?
There's no magic to it: buy vinegar made from a good wine. Vinegar should taste like its source; so, Italian red wine vinegar should taste like... Italian red wine!
Much of the red wine vinegar you find in supermarkets tastes of acid, and nothing more. That's okay; keep a bottle in your pantry to use for cooking, when your marinara needs a last-minute spoonful for balance, and expensive artisanal vinegar will be lost in the sauce. For salads and sauces that are more delicate in flavor, where the quality of the vinegar will be noticeable, use the best you can find, from a local vineyard or an online source like Zingerman's or Dean+DeLuca. Or start with some leftover wine, and make your own.
A self-preservative, vinegar will last in your pantry forever, or nearly so. Over time, it might get cloudy, or sediment might settle at the bottom of the bottle, but this will not affect the flavor.
Back in the day, I used red wine vinegar for salad dressing. Period. You'll have much more fun with it; try red onion and orange salad, spicy grilled eggplant, sweet and sour red wine vinegar chicken, roasted red peppers, Moroccan style chicken and lentils, or red beans and rice.
Fennel, pear and olive salad
At dinner a few weeks ago, my friend Candy served me a delicious fennel salad, which inspired this recipe. Fennel (also called anise) bulbs are available year-round. When cooked, they turn sweet; raw, they taste of licorice, but in a good way. The acid in the wine vinegar, along with the mustard, helps to tenderize the thin slices. Serves 4-6.
2 large fennel bulbs
1 large (or 2 small) ripe Bartlett or red pear
12 Kalamata olives, pits removed
3 Tbsp red wine vinegar
6 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 tsp Dijon mustard
1/2 tsp agave nectar (or honey), or 1 packet sugar substitute
A pinch of kosher salt
A pinch of fresh black pepper
1/4 cup crumbled feta cheese (optional)
Trim the fennel by cutting a slice off the root end, and removing the stalks down to the top of the bulb (reserve the fronds). Cut the bulb in quarters from top to bottom, so that each cut goes through the stem end. Remove the hard core from each quarter. Using a mandoline or very sharp knife, slice the fennel as thinly as possible. Place the slices in a mixing bowl.
Chop a Tbsp or two of the reserved fennel fronds (the leafy part only), and add to the fennel slices.
Core the pear, but do not peel. Slice very thinly, and add to the fennel. Slice the olives, and add to the fennel.
In a small bowl, mixing cup or jar, add the vinegar, oil, mustard, salt, pepper, and agave. Whisk to incorporate (or shake the jar). Taste and adjust seasoning as needed; it should have a strong mustard flavor, which will be balanced by the sweetness of the fennel. Pour over the fennel, toss well to combine, and set aside for at least 20 minutes and up to 2 hours.
Just before serving, sprinkle cheese over the top, and toss well to combine.