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Divine Dash No sour grapes: Balsamic vinegar will take almost any kind of food from drab to dramatic -- and just a little dab will do you.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

*TC You use it by the drop, not by the dollop. But it has the power to make salads sing and pastas pop. It can cheer up a grilled chicken breast, glaze a festive fowl such as duck or turkey, add sparkle to roasted vegetables.

"It's an incredible product. It has such complex characteristics," said Peter Zimmer, chef and part owner of the new Joy America Cafe, singing the praises, as most chefs do, of balsamic vinegar, now grown so popular it might be called the condiment of the '90s.

For a long time, only chefs knew the secret of this carefully crafted and long-aged concoction, with its bold, distinctive, sweet-sour taste, as complex as wine. It's quite different from the thinner, sour taste of ordinary vinegars. But recently the rest of the cooking crowd has caught on, and the once-scarce product is now available in supermarkets as well as specialty and gourmet stores.

Balsamic vinegar, in fact, is made much like wine, from grapes such as white Trebbiano or the red Lambrusco, and it is aged in wooden casks. Ordinary vinegar is made from wine or fermented fruit juices, but aceto balsamico tradizionale is made exclusively with unfermented crushed grapes that are condensed by heating and aging, according to Burton Anderson in "Treasures of the Italian Table: Italy's Celebrated Foods and the Artisans Who Make Them" (Morrow, 1994, $20). As it is reduced, the vinegar is moved from large barrels into ever-smaller ones, aging and evaporating until the vinegar is concentrated and the color of dark caramel.

"The people of Emilia often use balsamico on its own as a distinctive flavoring with meat, fish, and vegetable dishes or as the prime ingredient in the sauces that enrich the local cooking," Mr. Anderson writes. "Admirers will sip the finest aged tradizionale straight from a small glass or teaspoon, following its ancient role as a cordial, digestive, or elixir."

Like true champagne, traditional balsamic vinegar is strictly regulated in Italy to meet the highest standards of its designation. Only in two places, parts of Modena and Reggio nell'Emilia, can producers claim their product to be the authentic thing, "aceto balsamico tradizionale."

For most of its history, traditional aceto balsamico was not exported; it was a family affair, with each estate having its own "acetaia," or vinegar room, in an attic or a loft, Mr. Anderson says, and the premises were a venerated heirloom. The vinegar was used at home, or given as gifts to friends.

As word of the pleasures of aceto balsamico tradizionale got out in recent years, however, demand began to rise. Nontraditional producers sprang up, some of them far from Modena and Emilia, and many of them sought a less labor-intensive, less time-consuming and less expensive way to produce a "balsamic" vinegar. Imitations abound, some of them no more than ordinary vinegar flavored and colored with caramel.

Cook's Illustrated magazine, which recently held a balsamic vinegar taste-off, notes that today balsamic vinegar is more popular in the United States than it is in Italy. So popular is it that the Baltimore-based company Pompeian, which has been importing, bottling and selling olive oil in this country for 90 years, began six months ago importing balsamic vinegar; it includes 35 major grocery chains among its customers.

The developing taste for balsamic vinegar has been "a slow progression" from knowledgeable chefs to the general public, said Chris Cherry, chef at Tabrizi's in Federal Hill. "I think what happened was a lot of people got away from heavier sauces with butter and cream." In the late '80s, he said, there was a trend to healthier dining, and chefs began using other flavorings. All sorts of vinegars found favor, including wine, raspberry and balsamic vinegars.

"The easiest way to add flavor is with something that's concentrated," Mr. Cherry said, noting acidic flavors "open up the palate."

"The best way I can describe it is a warmth, a brilliance," Mr. Zimmer said. He uses balsamic vinegar as a finishing ingredient in sauces, at the end of the sauteing process, tossed with roasted vegetables and in glazes for meat or game. "When you think something's kind of flat, a marinara sauce is not what you thought it should be," a -- of balsamic vinegar is just the thing, he said. "It offers depth with brightness. It kind of rounds things off."

"I use it on everything," said chef Michael Rork, of the Town Dock restaurant in St. Michaels. He discovered balsamic vinegar some years ago when he was working in a restaurant in Houston, and the Italian owner introduced him to it. Now he uses it in marinades, especially for grilled dishes, and keeps a spray bottle of olive oil and balsamic vinegar by the grill to spray on fish, meat and fowl while they cook.

All the chefs emphasized that quality is important. They generally use vinegars that have been aged 6 to 12 years, with occasional sparing use of a 25-year-old aceto balsamico. Although some vinegars are made by the "balsamic method," "a lot of them are not as good," said Dave Rudie, chef at the Milton Inn in Sparks. "A good one has incredible sweetness and richness to it."

"It's sort of like caviar," said Michael Gettier, chef and owner, with his wife, Claudia, of M. Gettier in Fells Point. "To get a good product you have to pay for it. I get real small bottles -- even here, we get 6-ounce bottles. That lasts a long time."

Here are some recipes using balsamic vinegar. The first two are from Michael Rork, who describes it as "the best marinade I've come across." It works for meat, poultry and fish and seafood.

Balsamic marinade

Makes about 1 1/2 cups

1 cup olive oil

1/3 cup chopped red bell pepper

3 to 4 tablespoons honey

2 tablespoons lime juice

1/4 cup balsamic vinegar

1 tablespoon currant jam

1 tablespoon dried coriander leaves

1 tablespoon dried thyme leaves

1 ancho pepper, seeded and soaked in water to rehydrate

2 to 3 cloves garlic

Put all ingredients except garlic into bowl of food processor and puree. Add garlic; pulse to puree.

L Mr. Rork said this dressing is the Town Dock's most popular.

Sun-dried tomato vinaigrette

Makes about 1 1/2 cups

1 cup sun-dried tomatoes

1 small can whole tomatoes

1 teaspoon dried thyme

1 teaspoon dried oregano

1 teaspoon dried basil

3 cloves roasted garlic

1/4 cup balsamic vinegar

1/2 cup olive oil

dash of Worcestershire sauce

salt and pepper to taste

In a small saucepan, simmer all ingredients over low heat 45 minutes. Puree and adjust seasoning.

Pompeian asked chefs, including Ron Brown of Eagle Spirits at the Easton Club in Easton, for favorite dishes with balsamic vinegar. This is one of his recipes.

Easton stuffed portobello mushrooms

Serves 4 as an appetizer or light lunch dish

4 plum tomatoes, cut into 5 slices each

4 portobello mushrooms, well-washed, with stems removed

FOR THE MARINADE:

1/2 cup balsamic vinegar

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

1/2 teaspoon minced garlic

( salt and pepper to taste

FOR THE STUFFING:

1 pound crab meat, well-picked over

1 14-ounce can artichoke hearts, water-packed, cut into quarters

1/2 cup softened cream cheese

1/4 cup mayonnaise

juice from 1 lemon

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

salt and pepper to taste

Combine marinade ingredients and marinate mushrooms for 20 minutes.

Heat oven to 350 degrees.

Soften cream cheese and mix all ingredients for the filling. Grill marinated mushrooms on both sides until they begin to get soft. Place mushrooms, stemmed side up, on baking dish. Arrange tomato slices in a star shape on top of mushrooms. Divide filling into 4 parts and firmly place on top of mushrooms and tomatoes. Bake 15 to 20 minutes. Serve on individual luncheon plates with toast points or crackers.

The last recipe is from "The Woman's Day Cookbook," by Kathy Farrell-Kingsley and the editors of Woman's Day (Viking, 1995, $24.95).

Mediterranean chickpea salad

Serves 4

BALSAMIC VINAIGRETTE:

1/4 cup olive oil

1/4 cup balsamic vinegar

1/2 teaspoon minced garlic

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

SALAD:

1 16-ounce can chickpeas, drained and rinsed

1 9-ounce package frozen French-cut green beans, thawed and drained

12 medium-sized pitted black olives

1 cup thinly sliced peeled cucumber

12 cherry tomatoes, quartered, or 1 1/2 cups diced plum tomatoes

4 ounces feta cheese, crumbled

1/4 cup loosely packed fresh basil leaves, stacked and cut in strips, or 1 tablespoon dried basil

In a large serving bowl, whisk the oil, vinegar, garlic, salt and pepper until well-blended.

Add the chickpeas, green beans, olives, cucumber, feta cheese and basil. Toss to mix and coat.

Serve right away.

Dear vinegar

"Price equals quality" when it comes to balsamic vinegar, says Cook's Illustrated magazine, which did a balsamic taste-off in its March-April issue last year. Look for the recommended brands in specialty food and gourmet shops.

Most highly recommended were Compagnia del Montale Aceto Balsamico di Modena ($30/250 ml); Cavalli Condimento Balsamico ($14.95/250 ml); and Cibo di Lidia Aceto Balsamico diModena ($20/250 ml).

Also recommended were vinegars from Fiorucci ($5.79/250 ml), Fini ($10.50/250 ml), and Masserie di Sant'Eramo ($6.95/250 ml).

Among those not recommended was what the magazine said was the country's best-selling brand, Monari Federzoni Balsamic Vinegar of Modena ($3.79/500 ml).

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