A large cane hamper filled with crusty bread, a bottle of extra virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar, fresh fruit and cheese is my idea of picnic fare.
I have used vinegar many times and in many ways. It adds not just a sour note, but also carries the muted flavours of fermented sugars, offering a complexity to the dish. Balsamic vinegar is dark, sweet and tart, and is produced in Modena, Italy. It ages well and pairs beautifully with sun-ripened tomatoes, fresh basil and baby mozzarella.
Vinegar is aged in wooden barrels. Young balsamic for a period of three to five years, the middle for six to 12 years and the aged one for anything between 12 to 60 years or more. Aged balsamic loses the intensity of young sharp vinegars and can even be drunk as an aperitif after dinner. The deep colour and sweetness is not only due to the aging, but also because of the slow cooking of white Trebbiano grapes.
There are many kinds of natural vinegars. They can be made by fermenting anything which has high natural sugar content. My German friend Joachim once brought me two bottles of raspberry and black currant vinegar.
Vinegars made from fruits such as kiwi, persimmon, strawberry and so on are popular. Apple cider vinegar is one I love for its complexity of taste.
Fruit vinegars made in India include coconut vinegar from Goa and jamun vinegar from West Bengal. Raisin vinegar and Sirka, derived from sugarcane, are also made here.
I add a splash of white vinegar while roasting root vegetables. This is made by a natural fermentation of white wine. It has a hit of sourness, accompanied by the inherent sweetness of white wine. Pinot gris, champagne, sherry and port are all used to make vinegars.
It’s also exciting to create your own flavourings at home. Drop a few garlic cloves, snip in some fresh herbs or half a teaspoonful of chilli flakes into the vinegar.
Let that sit for a day or two and you have your very own flavoured vinegar. These work better with lighter wine vinegars than darker ones.
Rice wine vinegar and Chinese black vinegar are quintessential in Asian cooking. The vinegar balances the heaviness of pork, beef, etc. Chinese pickled vegetables are made by thinly slicing them, adding sugar, salt and a dash of vinegar, then letting them steep for about an hour.
A dressing of honey mustard and white vinegar, with some feathery strands of dill go beautifully with boiled eggs. Vinegar is also low on fat and cuts through the richness of heavy sauces. Not only does it enhance taste, but it also aids in digestion too.
A vinaigrette dressing can be bold and punchy, or light and zingy, depending on the seasonings added.
Vinegars are best stored airtight in a cool dark place. Once open, it’s advisable to refrigerate them. If you are not using heavy spices or full-bodied masalas, add a spoon of vinegar to your dish to add vibrancy.
Shanthini blogs at pinklemontreerecipes.com