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Cookery School, Cooking class in tuscany

Balsamic

Years ago, I left my village one morning, bound for Modena.

All I had was that name of the man I was going to meet, an address and a phone number. There were no GPS trackers or cell phones to depend on then... just a lot of confidence and a map.

Being the positive and adventurous woman I am, I told myself that all roads lead to Rome in the end, and there was nothing to worry about.

Once in Modena, I realized how wrong I had been. The acetaia (vinegar cellar) I was visiting was not in Modena, but in a remote area in the Emilian countryside, in the middle of nowhere.

None of the residents were able to give me clear directions. It started to rain. I tried to stay composed and smile at all the people who were trying to help me with directions.

I soon found out that the “Drive down there,” “ Turn up here,” and “Make a left when you see the statue of the Mad-onna,” directions were not getting me anywhere at all. But somehow I eventually reached my destination: a beautiful and ancient country house nestled on top of a rolling hill, surrounded by fields and fog. Piero, the man I was going to interview, was still waiting outside for me, under the porch. The old, frail man with a red umbrealla came to greet me.

It was impossible to figure out just how old he was. I apologized profusely for my delay, but he gave me a big smile and said, “Do not worry young lady, my aceto (vinegar) is not going anywhere!” Inside, his wife had prepared a welcome snack: cured meats and Parmigiano Reggiano, and bread and fried dough, along with and his majesty, the Balsamic Vinegar. Piero took the container of balsamic vinegar and poured a couple of drops of the balm on top of a sliver of cheese.

It was as thick as molasses. He told me “It is like blood,” and he was right. The glossy color was as nearly black; the fragrance and flavor were unique, amazing. It was incredible what that drop of balsamic vinegar could reveal. I learned that Piero’s balsamic vinegar was forty- seven years old.

His only regret was that he was too old to even hope to taste it when it would be sixty years old. His whole life was spent on this ambitious project, but he knew he would never live to see the final masterpiece. Balsamic vinegar is a prized possesion and represents a small fortune to families just like Piero’s. Every family has a recipe of their own, each having a different and unique artisanal taste. One of the biggest differences is age.

The Tradizionale Extravecchio balsamic vinegar is more than 25 years old. Its label must say “extravecchio” and show a golden seal. Aceto balsamico tradizionale is less than 25 years old and has either a silver or orange seal on the label. Making balsamic vinegar requires unconditional dedication, passion and sacrifice. Piero’s balsamic story enriched my life for the better. Balsamic vinegar has (and will always have) my respect. Balsamic vinegar has a long history. The Duke of Modena used it as digestive after a good meal.

During the Middle Ages it was used medicinally rather than as a condiment. Eventually, due to its sweet and intense flavor, it started to be used sparingly on Parmigiano Reggiano, strawberries and other berries, as well as on roasted or boiled meats. In 2000, balsamic vinegar became a PDO (Protected Designated Origin) product.

True balsamic vinegar is produced only in Italy. Balsamico is made from Lambrusco and Trebbiano grapes, and its production involves precise rules dictated by a rigid disciplinary committee.

RISOTTO WITH PEARS, SMOKED SCAMORZA AND BALSAMIC VINEGAR

SERVES 4

My aunt makes this elegant risotto when we visit her in Reggio Emilia. It is a very rich risotto, but the sweetness of the pears and the intense flavor of the balsamic makes it feel light.

  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 yellow or red onion, finely diced
  • 2 shallots, finely diced
  • 1 Forelle or Seckel pear, peeled, cored and diced
  • 1 Forelle or Seckel pear, peeled, cored and thinly sliced
  • 1/2 pound carnaroli rice
  • 1/4 cup dry white wine
  • 1 quart beef stock, hot
  • 1/2 cup diced smoked scamorza
  • Sea salt
  • Balsamic vinegar

1. In a heavy shallow pot, heat butter and oil. Add diced onion and shallots. Cook for about 10 minutes, on low heat, stirring very frequently, until onions are soft but not brown. Add a bit of stock, if needed, to keep onions from browning.

2. Increase heat to medium. Add diced pear and cook for 5 minutes. Stir in rice and cook for 3 minutes. When onion mixture looks dry and rice looks translucent, pour in wine and let it evaporate.

Start adding the hot broth, one ladleful at a time, and stir. Allow liquid to be absorbed by rice before adding more liquid. Stir frequently.

3. In a small skillet, sauté the sliced pear with 1 tablespoon of butter; set aside.

4. When rice is al dente (cooked butfirm), stir in the scamorza and 1 tablespoon of butter. Season with salt. Add sautéed pear and stir.

5. Serve hot, drizzled with balsamic vinegar.

PORK LOIN WITH BALSAMIC VINEGAR

SERVES 2 TO 3

This is one of our favorite recipes at the school. The vegetables and the sweet flavor of balsamic vinegar make the pork extremely flavorful. For a quicker reparation, cook the pork on the stovetop, turning frequently.

  • 5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 large red onion
  • 1 medium carrot
  • 1 stalk celery
  • Salt, to taste
  • Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 sage leaf
  • 1 pound pork loin or tenderloin

1. Preheat oven to 350°F.

2. In the bowl of a food processor, place 3 tablespoons of oil, onion, carrot, celery, salt and pepper in a food processor. Pulse until pureed.

3. In a small bowl, combine balsamic vinegar with 2 tablespoons oil. Rub mixture all over meat. Place puree in the bottom of a baking pan, top with the pork and bake for approximately 40 minutes, along with sage and bay leaves.

4. Keep the loin basted with the pan drippings and vegetables. Cook to internal temperature of 150°F.

5. Using tongs, remove pork from pan and let rest for 5 minutes. Cut into thin slices and arrange on a platter. Top with sauce (the sauce will be quite thick, like a jam) and serve.

BRUSCHETTA WITH PARMIGIANO AND BALSAMIC VINEGAR

SERVES 4 TO 6 AS AN APPETIZER

You can use arugula, mache or red amaranth in place of the radicchio.

  • 2 Bartlett pears, thinly sliced
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • Salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 4 thin slices of country bread
  • 1 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese shavings
  • 4 tablespoons thinly shredded radicchio
  • 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

1. In a large skillet, melt butter. Add pear

clices and saute for 3 minutes or until slightly golden. Season with salt and pepper.

2. Toast the bread slices. Top with sauteed pear first, then with cheese and radicchio.

3. Drizzle with balsamic vinegar and serve.

RAVIOLI WITH WHITE ASPARAGUS AND BALSAMIC VINEGAR

SERVES 4 TO 6

For Pasta

  • 12 ounces unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
  • 3 eggs
  • Pinch salt
  • 1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil
  • For Filling
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 pound cooked white asparagus, finely chopped
  • 8 ounces fresh ricotta
  • 8 ounces freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
  • 1/2 teaspoon fresh thyme
  • Salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 eggs
  • For Sauce
  • 10 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • Salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • Balsamic vinegar
  • Grated Parmigiano Reggiano

1. Make ravioli filling. In a medium skillet, melt butter. Add asparagus and sauté for 2 minutee. Transfer to a bowl and cool to room temperature.

2. Add the ricotta, eggs, thyme and cheese to asparagus mixture. Mix until well blended. Season with salt and pepper to taste .

3. Make pasta dough. Heap the flour onto a flat work surface; make a well in the center. Add eggs, salt and oil to the well. Using a Intermezzo 6 fork, beat egg mixture inside the well, then incorporate increasing amounts of the flour wall until a smooth dough has been created.

4. Knead pasta dough with floured hands for 5 minutes. Pinch off a lemon-sized piece and pass through widest setting on a pasta machine. Dust lightly with flour, fold into thirds and pass through the machine three times more. Narrow the setting on the machine by one notch, dust the sheet lightly with flour and pass through the machine again. Continue to pass through even more narrow settings until you have reached the desired thickness (generally marker 6 on the machine will do it). Lay the long sheets out on the counter.

5. Make the ravioli. Place a row of 1/2 teaspoon filling in center of each pasta sheet, spaced 1 inch apart. Fold the pasta sheet over to cover the mounds. Press between the mounds with your fingers. Cut raviolis with a floured ravioli cutter or pasta wheel.

6. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Transfer the ravioli to pot; partially cover the pot and return to a boil. Cook for 3 to 4 minutes after ravioli have floated to the top.

7. While ravioli are cooking, make the sauce.

In a large skillet, melt the butter; add salt and pepper. Drain the ravioli well and add to the skillet, tossing gently until well coated. Plate and drizzle with balsamic vinegar. Dust with cheese and serve immediately.

STRAWBERRIES AND BALSAMIC VINEGAR

SERVES 1

This simple dessert is better than any sorbet, fresher than any gelato and so elegant.

    • 6 strawberries, washed, dried and quartered 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

1. Place strawberries in a small glass bowl or wine glass.

2. Drizzle with balsamic vinegar and serve immediately.

COURTESY OF INTERMEZZO MAGAZINE

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