Vinegar is one of humanity's oldest condiments, and when it comes to mealtimes, it can be among the home cook's best friends.
Vinegar is made by acetic fermentation, a process that basically converts alcohol into acid. Most countries produce their own vinegars, typically based on the most popular alcohol there. So, France and Italy produce wine vinegars. Spain brings you sherry vinegar. Asians distill rice wine (e.g. sake) vinegar, while Great Britain creates vinegar from beer (malt vinegar) and from cider. The most frequently produced U.S. vinegar is apple cider vinegar.
Among basic vinegars you probably have taking up space in your pantry are:
Malt vinegar, made from soured beer, used for pickling vegetables, flavoring chips (French fries). It has a robust, rather harsh flavor and generally isn't good for salad dressings.
Distilled vinegar is colorless and used for pickling vegetables, fixing the color on Easter eggs, and is acceptable in salad dressings.
Cider vinegar is made from cider (mostly apple cider) in the same way as wine vinegar is made from wine. It is generally stronger and sharper in flavor than wine vinegar, and can be used in salad dressings, meat dishes, and for pickling vegetables and fruits.
Red and white wine vinegars are usually derived from rosé and white wines. The quality of the vinegar will depend on the quality of its ingredient; the cheaper, the harsher. These are good all-around vinegars for marinades, sauces, dressings and for adding interesting flavor to stews and soups. If using in main dishes, pair red wine vinegar with red meats, white with poultry, pork, seafood.
Rice vinegars are generally fermented from rice and can be dark amber in color. Those that are further distilled are clear. The dark-colored rice vinegar is made from glutinous rice, long grain rice, wheat, barley and rice husks. Rice vinegar is used widely in Asia, and here, for sweet and sour, hot and sour, in nam pla (Thai fish sauce), in dipping sauces and more. Clear rice vinegars are rather mild and good to use in dishes, and dressings, where a lighter flavor is desired.
Balsamic vinegar is the current darling of the vinegar world. It is rich, dark, mellow, and usually made from Trebbiano grapes, then fermented in huge barrels for a minimum of four years. The older, the more expensive, of course, but when it comes to dressings and marinades and bastes and good, all-around flavoring, it deserves its high repute.
If you like to experiment in the kitchen, you probably have several of the above vinegars, and maybe even more varieties (raspberry, tarragon, sherry, etc.) languishing in your pantry. Thank goodness they have such a long shelf life. Ergo, our exercise du jour is to remind you what these luscious liquids can do for dinner, and all without adding more than a couple of calories to the proceedings.
A main-dish salad that combines chilled veggies with warm shrimp is ideal this time of year. It's a little fussy, but will probably become a favorite at your house. Use it for chicken salad, too. Vary the herbs to vary the flavor.
Serve with warm, toasted tortilla wedges or artisanal bread. Try a white wine if you like.
1/3 cup reduced-fat buttermilk
2 tablespoons minced Anaheim or other mild green chile
4 teaspoons (or more) chopped, fresh dill (or use tarragon)
1 1/2 teaspoons grated lime zest
5 teaspoons fresh lime juice
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon coarsely ground pepper
2 small garlic cloves, minced
2 1/2 pounds large shrimp, peeled, deveined
1 tablespoon olive oil
Salad and dressing
18 romaine lettuce leaves
2 small heads Bibb lettuce, separated into leaves
3 tomatoes, cut into wedges
2/3 cup reduced-fat buttermilk
1/4 cup white wine vinegar
2 tablespoons finely chopped shallots
2 teaspoons minced fresh tarragon or dill
2 teaspoons coarse dijon mustard
1 teaspoon grated lime zest
1/4 teaspoon sugar
For the shrimp, combine shrimp and marinade ingredients (buttermilk, chile, tarragon, etc.), except olive oil, in a large, zip-top bag, mix well and marinate 30 minutes at room temperature or for 2 hours in refrigerator. Remove shrimp from marinade and pat dry. Discard marinade.
In a large, non-stick skillet, over medium-high, heat olive oil. Sauté marinated shrimp, in batches, for about 2 minutes on each side. Remove to a plate and cover loosely with foil.
For the salad, have all ingredients ready. Arrange lettuces and tomatoes on a serving platter. Top with shrimp. Drizzle with dressing. Pass more dressing ion the side.
For the dressing, in a shaker jar, buttermilk, vinegar, shallots, fresh tarragon (or dill), mustard, lime rind and sugar. Shake well. Makes 6 servings.
Hot and sour fish soup
This is a far less complicated soup than the traditional hot and sour we enjoy at Chinese restaurants. It can be used as a first course or main dish. You can serve it with rice. And add an Americanized Asian salad of iceberg lettuce, carrot shreds, red onion, tomato wedges and a storebought ginger-flavored dressing.
1 1/2 pounds, boneless, skinless tilapia fillets
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 tablespoon dark sesame oil
7 cups reduced-fat/sodium chicken broth
Two-thirds cup finely diced fresh mushrooms
1 tablespoon straight (medium) sherry
2 teaspoons shredded fresh gingerroot
1/2 teaspoon coarsely ground pepper
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
3 tablespoons reduced-sodium soy sauce
3 tablespoons cornstarch dissolved in 1/3 cup cold water
3 tablespoons finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
2 tablespoons finely sliced scallion greens
2 eggs, beaten
Chow mein noodles, for serving
In a large, non-stick skillet, over medium, heat vegetable oil and sesame oil. Sauté tilapia fillets until just opaque, turning once. Remove to paper towels. When cool, chop coarsely. Keep handy.
In medium pot, over medium heat, combine chicken broth, mushrooms, sherry, ginger, pepper, vinegar and soy sauce. Bring to a boil. Simmer 10 minutes. Add cornstarch mixture and simmer until soup begins to thicken. Add parsley and scallion greens. Simmer 3 minutes. Return fish to pot. Add beaten eggs and stir briskly until eggs are cooked. Serve immediately. Makes 6 servings.
Since the grill is still a dinnertime work horse, try this warm "salad" to go with a simple protein source like grilled fish or chicken.
2 or 3 navel oranges
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
3 tablespoons, plus 5 teaspoons olive oil
6 small romaine lettuce hearts
With a vegetable peeler, peel 6 (1 1/4 inch by one-half inch) strips (orange part only) from 2 of the oranges. Cut lengthwise into very thin strips. Squeeze oranges to obtain 3 tablespoons fresh juice. In a bowl, whisk together zest strips, orange juice, vinegar and 3 tablespoons of the olive oil. Add pepper, and salt to taste. Add more vinegar if dressing is too "oily."
Halve romaine hearts lengthwise, keeping stem end(s) intact. Brush all over with remaining 5 teaspoons olive oil. Season with pepper, and salt if using. Place, cut sides down, on prepared grill. Grill for 3 to 4 minutes. Turn and grill another 3 to 4 minutes, until romaine has some "color" but isn't too wilted.
To serve, remove to a platter and drizzle with some of the dressing. Makes 6 servings of 2 romaine halves each.
Kale gets a kick out of bacon and vinegar and makes a great side dish for autumnal protein sources like pork tenderloin, roasted chicken, grilled duck breast.
3 large bunches kale (about 2 /4 pounds, total)
6 slices bacon, chopped
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
Pepper and sea salt
Cut stems and center ribs away from kale leaves. Coarsely tear leaves. In a large pot of boiling, lightly salted water, cook kale leaves for 6 minutes. Drain well.
In a large, non-stick skillet, over medium, cook chopped bacon, stirring, until crisp. Use a slotted spoon to remove cooked bacon to paper towels to drain. Pour off all but 3 tablespoons of the bacon fat. Add kale to skillet over medium-high heat. Return drained bacon to skillet. Sauté, stirring, until kale is heated through. Toss kale mixture with vinegar. Taste for pepper, and salt. Makes 6 servings.
Taste for pepper, and salt. Makes 6 servings.