A food review by Daniel B.
Maybe Arbor Hill’s Three Oak Balsamic Vinegar is not actually balsamic, and that’s okay. They aren’t the first and they won’t be the last to leverage the balsamic name for their wood aged wine vinegar.
In fact, almost everything that passes as balsamic vinegar is a copy of the original. If your bottle says, “Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena” there is a good chance it’s the real thing. It is not available in supermarkets, and it costs upwards of $100 for a very small bottle.
To make matters more confusing, true balsamic is not vinegar at all, but rather a concentrated boiled-down must of Italian wine grapes, that has aged for at least twelve years in a variety of wood barrels. It is used drop, by sweet, viscous, aromatic drop.
But the upside of not being a true balsamic is that you can use it in ways that you would never dream of using the aged mosto cotto of Modena.
Like on a salad.
Forget about true balsamic for a moment. Just put it out of your head. Because likely you have had deliciously thick and concentrated bottles of balsamic vinegar that you paid a pretty penny for at gourmet markets. And many of them are totally delightful. They too are thick and rich with age, and the concentrated sweetness of time.
Arbor Hill isn’t quite like those either. Instead of being opaque with a deep mahogany color around the rim, Arbor Hill’s is a clear dark amber with auburn highlights. Instead of being thick, it’s a good bit thinner. And instead of being concentrated and sweet, it’s quite tart (although there is some sweetness lurking beneath the surface). It’s not made from Italian varietals of grapes, but from the distinctly American catawba that grows well in the Finger Lakes where this vinegar is produced.
Thin and tart are not bad qualities in a vinegar. Arbor Hill’s picks up a great deal of aromatics from its four years first in Hungarian oak, then in French oak, and finally in American oak. Frankly, it has the acidity to stand up to salad like a lot of sweeter more concentrated balsamic vinegars are lacking.
With abundant rain, lettuces have been plentiful. So here is a very simple technique for dressing salad greens that I learned from Marcella Hazan.
Before learning this, I dreaded making salad. Primarily that dread came from the desire to perfectly dry every single leaf to ensure the dressing would cling and not get diluted into a puddle on the bottom of the salad bowl.
Marcella changed my mind. Because she starts with a little bit of sea salt. Now, if the leaves are still slightly damp, I know that those few drops of water will help to dissolve the salt and distribute it more evenly across the greens.
Next comes the oil. And really, you should be using the best olive oil you can afford to generously slather over all of your greens. Toss the greens gently until every surface of every leaf is coated with oil. If you need more, go for it.
Only then does the vinegar come into play. And one needs a light, deft hand to get just enough to season the salad without overwhelming it. One more gentle toss combines the whole thing, and then you can taste a leaf to see how you did, and correct the proportions on the fly.
That’s it. No emulsifications. No tomatoes. No vegetables. Just perfectly fresh seasonal greens, complemented with a few well chosen simple ingredients.
If you’ve got a garden this year, you better be a salad lover. This technique made a salad lover out of me. And this local vinegar is a great choice with greens. But should you really want to make it thicker and sweeter, you could always reduce it down in a pan over low heat to make a glaze. It could be your secret ingredient, as nobody will ever guess the source of your sweet-tart sauce.
Which of course is another thing you wouldn’t dare to do with real balsamic.
About Daniel B.
A west coast transplant now living in Albany, Daniel Berman is applying his communication strategy background to food writing with the ultimate goal of improving the culinary landscape in the Capital Region. He writes the FUSSYlittleBLOG and contributes regularly to All Over Albany