It's vinegar's turn to be chic


Food fads come and go. A taste sensation one day turns dull the next. Time to move on to something else.

Currently, vinegar is the latest darling of professional chefs. The puckery liquid is used to deglaze saute pans to create a small sauce, reducing the need for butter and cream in the process. Various herb vinegars are stirred into low-fat yogurt for a new kind of salad dressing.

But be careful; not just any old vinegar will do. Plain old vinegar is just sour wine (vin aigre). Chefs are partial to good red-wine vinegar. Some even specify a Tuscan red-wine vinegar or a cabernet vinegar.

Those very specialized bottles may be trademarks for an individual cooking style but hardly necessary for the serious amateur cook. Just start with a good red-wine vinegar, preferably imported. European countries have a centuries-old tradition of producing superior wine vinegars.

Fans of Italian cuisine are often startled to see reference to sprinkling vinegar over fresh strawberries. The vital piece of information missing in the recipe is that the vinegar is quite remarkable. It is balsamic vinegar, that cherished dark liquid gold from Modena, just north of Bologna.

True balsamic vinegar is aged for decades in small wooden barrels. The original sweet juice of white grapes slowly takes on different characteristics. At its best, it is a dense, flowing syrup, both sweet and sour at the same time. This is what is sprinkled over the cut, fresh strawberries.

But this true balsamic vinegar is not cheap. Nor does it come in large bottles. The commercial wine vinegars that are widely sold have been flavored with sugar and caramel and do not deliver the same intense pungency. But they, too, have their own place because they are less sour that many other vinegars.

Serious home cooks have long known about infusing vinegar with fresh herbs to produce a more intense flavor. Let the herbs steep anywhere from 10 days to a month, no longer. Use no more than 3 tablespoons of the herb for each quart of vinegar. If using fresh garlic, crush it first and steep for only 24 hours.

Once the flavor exchange is what you want, filter the vinegar and rebottle it in a sterilized bottle. If pretty bottles are used, these vinegars make much-appreciated gifts. For a few dollars, you can produce at home what is available in shops but for much less money. Recently, one specialty store displayed a quart of herb-flavored white wine vinegar for $27.50. It was very prettily done up, but still the basic vinegar was worth about $8.

A few years ago, raspberry vinegar was the rage. It flavored everything from fish fillets to fruit desserts. It was joined by black currant vinegar. Peach vinegar is the newest contender, as are sage and pink berry vinegars.

Instead of having a complete selection of various flavored vinegars, you can add a bit of the desired flavor to what you are preparing. If a touch of raspberry vinegar seems just right, use good white-wine vinegar plus a bit of fresh raspberry juice. The same principle can work with herbs.

A favorite in my kitchen is a good sherry vinegar. It is not as expensive as balsamic but delivers that same sort of slightly sweet edge, only with a hint of nuts.

Now that Asian cooking is being stirred and fried in more and more kitchens across the land, here is a tangy vinegar to keep on hand. Serrano-lemon grass vinegar is from Barbara Tropp's award-winning "China Moon Cookbook" (Workman).

This piquant seasoning is used in a number of Ms. Tropp's recipes to enhance the elusive flavor quality of the finished dish.

It's a dressed-up rice vinegar lively with the tastes of serrano chili and lemon grass. Shop for Marukan rice vinegar with the green label (unseasoned), which is easily found, or the harder-to-find but equally good Mitsukan. Those who avoid chili can simply omit it.

Serrano-lemon grass vinegar

Makes about 3 cups

3 cups unseasoned Japanese rice vinegar

1/2 cup quarter-size thin coins (slices) of fresh ginger, smashed

1 fat or 2 thinner stalks fresh lemon grass, pounded, then cut crosswise into finger lengths

6 green and/or red serrano chilies, tipped and halved

Combine all ingredients in non-aluminum pot, then bring to a simmer over moderate heat. Remove pot from heat and let stand until cool.

Store mixture in impeccably clean glass jar. If you wish, you may strain out solids before storing, but do not press down on them while doing so. Another alternative is to leave only chilies in jar for color.

Vinegar may cloud, but its flavor will not be affected.

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