There's a saying -- a joke -- in my house:
The more you have, the more you buy.
Now, I am not a shopaholic. Really. Oh, occasionally I might go a bit over budget in restaurant supply stores, or a certain favorite used cookbook shop near Fall River, Massachusetts. Or late at night on eBay, when I'm cruising the melamine bowl listings. Or in a shop that sells hand-dyed yarns or Japanese note papers embedded with bits of leaves and gold flecks...
No, in this case, the "you" is me, and the "more" is vinegar. I've had a mental block about it for years. I never remember how much regular distilled vinegar I have in the pantry, or whether I have any of the special ones like champagne or raspberry or seasoned rice or organic cider vinegar hand-pressed somewhere in Canada.
So I buy them all, over and over again, which explains why I have two bottles of black vinegar in my pantry.
Black vinegar is made by a process of fermentation and aging; in this case, the fermenting ingredient is glutinous black rice. The resulting vinegar, when properly aged, has a more assertive, smoky and woodsy taste, naturally sweeter than regular white vinegar, somewhat like a cross between balsamic and Worcestershire. However, though it looks somewhat like balsamic, black vinegar is made from grain, not grapes, which gives it a different flavor profile.
The best quality black vinegar -- also called black rice, brown rice, Chinkiang, Chekiang, or Zhejiang vinegar -- comes from the province of Chinkiang in southwestern China. Gold Plum brand, considered by many cooks to be the best tasting brand, made from glutinous rice and malt, won the prestigious French Laurier d'Or de la Qualité Internationale in 1985.
If you've never used black vinegar before, start by substituting it one-for-one in some of your favorite recipes that call for balsamic or Worcestershire sauce. Try your favorites, like dan dan noodles or kung pao chicken; you'll be amazed at how authentic your Chinese cooking tastes when you use authentic condiments. Then, move on to spicy Thai eggplant, butter and black vinegar tarts, minced pork linguine, chili chicken with cashews, or kecap manis glazed pork belly.
Add black vinegar to marinades and bastes, as well as dressings and sauces. Or use it straight as a dipping sauce, in braises, or for curing meat.
You can purchase black vinegar online or in your local Asian market; compared to balsamic, it's a bargain. Be sure to read the ingredient list carefully; I have several black vinegars in my pantry, from China and Taiwan, each a bit different. Look for one that lists rice, or something rice-like, as the first ingredient; those usually are sweeter. Tasting is the only way to find the vinegar that will become your favorite.
Peanut dipping sauce
Adapted from Nina Simonds' Asian Noodles, this sauce has undergone several metamorphoses in my kitchen over the years. I use it as a sauce for pasta (hot or cold), or slathered on grilled chicken sandwiches. Makes 3 cups.
6 garlic cloves, peeled
1-inch piece of peeled fresh ginger, cut in half
1 cup smooth peanut butter
1 tsp chili paste with garlic, or more to taste
1/2 cup reduced-sodium soy sauce
1 packet sugar substitute (Equal or Splenda)
2 tsp agave nectar
3/8 cup black vinegar
3/8 cup sesame oil
1/2 cup + 2 Tbsp water
In a food processor, combine garlic and ginger, and pulse until finely chopped. Add remaining ingredients, and process until the mixture is smooth. It should be the consistency of heavy cream; to thicken, add peanut butter. To thin, add water. Store in a jar with a tight-fitting lid, in the refrigerator, for up to two weeks. The longer it sits, the spicier it will get.
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