Friday, March 28, 2008

Initial Explanation

So what I want to know is, in terms of NYC food writing at large, is what's this burning obsession with restaurants?? I mean, we all like food, no shit; it's that the food writing I find seems so heavily weighted on the side of other people cooking for you. What they're cooking. How much it is. How the waiter offended you. The lipstick print on the 'clean' glass, etc. etc. Fucking effete babies! No, not really, but actually, really. Not interesting. What I find more constructive is actual discussions about cooking itself, as an experienced but decidedly unprofessional home cook. So, that's what I intend to focus on here; things I like to cook, musings about the qualities of individual ingredients, techniques, and food experiences I feel are noteworthy for one reason or another.
So you know what I think is a simultaneously overexposed but (yeah, yeah, I know, contradictory) underappreciated ingredient? Dude, for real. BALSAMIC VINEGAR. Now, I hear everybody screaming what the hell are you talking about that's like so mid 90's go eat some goat cheese and sundried tomatoes you dildohead. But listen, let me make my case before you make yet another salad dressing that tastes like a repeat of your ambitious and pathetic efforts at 'fine' cooking in art school - balsamic has been woefully under-explored. OF COURSE we are all sick of it in the following cliched contexts:
1. With olive oil and artisinal bread.
2. On a salad of fresh mozz balls, basil and tomato.
3. Or, more broadly, as dressing for salads of any kind.
4. Over summer berries. With mint, usually. Maybe some nuts. Pine. Walnuts. Whatevs, you know the deal.
Don't get me wrong, those ways of eating bals. vin. are reliably tasty and above reproach, OTHER than that they have become the de rigeur mode for consuming said vinegar and have become a culinary ball and chain for this ingredient. Balsamic has legs, man! Unchain that shit and let it fly!
Ok, so here's what I'm all about: BALSAMIC IN SOUP. Many and most soups. Ones with a variety of vegetables in particular. And not no pussy teaspoon or nothing, I'm talking like half a cup, kids.
Balsamic I find has a particular affinity for tomato-based soups. If you mix a large can of whole tomatoes - well, mash, with a masher -, into six or eight cups of chicken or vegetable broth, a half cup or more of balsamic creates a sour-sweet flavor of piquant intensity. Into which the intrepid chef can add many things. For a simple summer soup I add sliced chunks of zucchini, maybe 3 or 4 zucchini, and maybe some yellow squash, and simmer for 20 minutes. Then I add the corn cut off 5 fresh ears of corn, maybe a little finely diced jalapeno, and a ton of chopped basil OR cilantro. Maybe a splash of red wine in that shit. Some julienned green beans midway. OH and way back at the beginning, I forgot, it almost goes without saying - at the start? Saute 5 or 6 diced garlic cloves in a blop of oil, before adding tomatoes and stock.
DUDE, it seems simple, and it is, but rockin the vinegar really opens it up. The crisp sweetness of the corn (only cook 3 more minutes after you add the corn), the savory chunks of zucchini, and the tart, tangy, sweet rich broth just really kill it. I mean KILL IT.
Same basic broth but with a zillion veggies it more hearty. Last night, I made for Charley and I said soup WITH also:
Onion (fried with garlic at start)
Hot red paprika
AND if I'd had more time a big tray of roasted beets, parsnips and yams would have really made it a feast.
Look. I know this soup sounds elemental and frankly not that exciting. But I am TELLING you. It's the balsamic. Makes that shit exciting.
I guess although I hate to think it needs saying, but I'd better cover bases - add hell of salt. N pepper. Yo.

Also, more surprisingly - dare I say shockingly - balsamic has a way of waking up cream based soups. I would worry that it would create a sort of curdley flavor, if you know what I mean, but it's not as acidic as reg. vin. or lemon juice. It's full sweetness heightens more stolid flavors as a Marsala would, but with a touch more brightness. Cream of mushroom soup - obv. I mean made from scratch, not that canned sludge - really opens up, I mean it's not just the sharpness of the vinegar itself, it also seems to expand the mushroom flavor on the palate. Cream, which serves as such a delicious foil for the subtly flavored 'shroom, is more than adequate. but I find the roux I use to slightly thicken creates a deadening of flavor while improving texture. Balsamic balances that out. Kicks out the jams.

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