Sherry vinegar (Recipe: bread salad with roasted tomato vinaigrette)
- In the beginning, nobody set out to make sherry vinegar. It was a mistake, the result of poor wine making or sherry barrels that had accumulated too much acidity. Embarrassed wine makers, thinking these acidic vinegars a failure, would give the vinegar only to family and friends.
- Sherry vinegar comes from the "sherry triangle" in southern Spain, in the region of Cádiz between Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlucar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa Maria.
- All sherry vinegar starts with sherry, most of which is pressed from Palomino grapes. Some also is made from Pedro Ximenez grapes, or sweetened with PX wine, and the bottles are labeled PX; this vinegar is sweeter, more like balsamic.
- The solera system, by which sherry vinegar is produced, allows the vinegar to achieve great complexity, as newer vinegar is constantly blended with the older vintages at the bottom of the solera. The end product tastes of the oak casks, but also of caramel, toasted almonds, coffee and raisins -- which, if you were pulling those ingredients out of the pantry, sounds like the beginnings of some kind of wonderful dessert.
- In 2000, sherry vinegar received a Denomination of Origin (D.O) from the European Union. The designation guarantees that the sherry vinegar you buy will be produced in the "sherry triangle", that it will be aged for at least six months, and will contain at least seven percent acidity.
- Six-month vinegar is called Vinagre de Jerez; two-year aged is labeled Vinagre de Jerez Reserva. Vinagre de Jerez Gran Reserva has aged for more than ten years, and up to thirty years or more. As you can imagine, the longer the vinegar has aged in the cask, the higher the price. Use the Reserva to finish dishes like soups and sauces, and in salad dressing. For cooking, stick with the six-month (and less expensive) vinegar.
- In the heat of the summer, do as the Jerezanos do: add a drop of sherry vinegar to ice water to quench your thirst.
- Substitute balsamic, rice vinegar, or red wine vinegar, plus an optional a pinch of sugar.
- This vinegar isn't just for salads of greens or beets or potato. Try hazelnut cookie sherry vinegar swirl ice cream, garlic and almond soup, risotto cakes with sherry gastrique, vegetarian green chile, or grilled tri-tip steak with bell pepper salsa.
- Orson Welles called sherry vinegar "the best in the world". Would he lie?
Bread salad with roasted tomato vinaigrette
A riff on the traditional panzanella, a dish invented to use up old bread, this main-course salad takes advantage of the slow-roasted tomatoes I make each summer and store in the freezer. You can substitute oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes. Serves 4.
1/2 loaf ciabatta or other good bread (not too dense), left out overnight to get a bit stale
1/2 red onion, thinly sliced
2 whole (or 4 halves) slow-roasted tomatoes
1/4 cup sherry vinegar
1 tsp agave nectar or sugar substitute, to taste
Kosher salt and fresh black pepper, to taste
1/3 to 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
6 large ripe cherry tomatoes, quartered
6-8 olives, canned black or Kalamata, halved
6-8 large basil leaves, roughly chopped
1/4 cup crumbled feta cheese
Cut the bread into large (2 inch) cubes and place in a mixing bowl. Soak the onion in a bowl of ice water while you complete the salad.
In a blender, process the slow-roasted tomatoes until they are well chopped. Add vinegar, agave, salt, pepper and 1/3 cup oil, and blend until the dressing is smooth, adding additional oil if necessary to achieve a pourable consistency.
Add tomatoes and olives to the bread cubes, and pour the dressing on top (depending on the actual amount of bread, you might have extra dressing). Stir gently, making sure that the dressing coats all of the bread and begins to be absorbed. Drain the onions and add those to the bread. Add basil, and continue stirring. At the last minute, incorporate the feta.
Serve immediately or pack for a picnic; this salad will improve if it sits for a couple of hours.