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Red wine vinegar (Recipe: fennel, pear and olive salad) {vegetarian, gluten-free}


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.

[Printer-friendly recipe.]

More recipes in The Perfect Pantry:
Beet-cucumber relish
Pizza bianca
Pasta salad
Chicken Marbella
Raisin-banana scones

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Sounds good to me Lydia, back in the day, & here again today. I have a bottle of red wine vinegar & you give me so many ways to use it. Bless you!!

I enjoyed the walk down vinegar-related memory lane! I remember using only red wine as a kid. How things change!

Lydia, I believe the sediment that settles to the bottom is called "the mother". You can use this to start your own vinegar from red wine. Has anybody else heard this?

My favorite brand of red wine vinegar is colivata... bright, slightly sweet and fruity.

I've never quite known what to do with fennel, but love the idea of this salad and the flavors. I recently got tired of the standard supermarket red wine vinegar, and bought a product made from oak barrelled Bordeaux. The very acidic flavor was about the same, so I need to keep shopping ...

I love fennel, and I'm certainly going to try this salad. Thanks for the idea.

I use red wine vinegar in my pot roasts but this sounds great in this salad. It was interesing...the evolution of vinegar in a home cook's pantry.

Very fun introduction about red wine vinegar. This salad sounds like such an interesting combination of flavors, love it!

I really wish I liked fennel - there are so many great things you can do with it!

I love my red wine vinegar in my potato salad; I mix it with mayo. I miss summer foods!
I love my sherry vinegar and my rice wine vinegar too. How vinegars how come along...

I love the sound of this salad!

Julia, I've heard this too, and tried it, and it works!

TW, I'm surprised the Bordeaux wine vinegar didn't have a more round taste. Yes, keep trying. Or start your own, maybe?

Veron, I'm a fan of red wine vinegar in beef stews, too. A splash late in the cooking really does brighten the flavors.

Maris, I never used to like raw fennel, but I found that slicing it very thinly and letting it "marinate" in something like mustard really does change the flavor and take away the harsh licorice taste. Cooked fennel is a completely different sensation -- soft and sweet. Give it another try!

Dawn, I thin the mayo in my potato salad with mustard and vinegar, too.

Absolutely delicious. I love RWV in well...everything!

That salad sounds wonderful -I'm looking forward to trying a pear and fennel combination!

Lydia, I could really fall for this one, I think.

My pantry has about 8 bottles of vinegar in it. I really need to stop buying it on impulse.

2009 has been a year full of fennel salads...love it now!

Mimi, my vinegar collection keeps growing, too. I was amazed when I counted the different vinegars that I "must" have for everyday cooking. How did I live without them?!

Peter, same here. I didn't always love fennel, but I do now.

The salad looks and sounds delicious!

Please, would you share a source for the serving skillet? I'm smitten.

Now I know I have never had pears with olives. I think I need to try that out to see what it taste like.

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