Secret Weapon: Balsamic Vinegar

| posted in cooking

I’d like to introduce you to the patron saint of cooking science:

Harold McGee

This be-bearded man is Harold McGee, and he wrote a book called On Food and Cooking.  This book is awesome.  It reads like a really good textbook, and while that sounds like damning with faint praise, it’s not.  A good textbook is easy to follow, full of useful information, and readable.  He packs an amazing amount of information in this book.  Why is bread chewy? Page 290.  Why is beef red and fish white? Page 92.  Farting astronauts?  Page 257. *

This book didn’t make me a cook, it made me a better one.  Knowing what I’m doing and more importantly, why I’m doing it lets me to replicate results exactly, and if I need to make changes, I know what effect the changes will have. 

Knowing the physiology of taste and smell also helps me cook.   The traditional five tastes are: sweet, sour, salt, bitter, and umami (savory).  An interesting meal balances all of these flavors.

Which brings me to the secret weapon.  Have you ever tasted a dish and thought, this needs something, but you don’t know what?  It probably needs more sour.  Or if you want a nicer word, “brightness”. 

Anything acidic will add brightness - I’ll usually reach for dijon mustard or lemon juice, but today’s secret weapon is balsamic vinegar.

This recipe really highlights acidity.  It goes from flat and boring to amazing with a tablespoon of vinegar.  For reals, yo. 

Corn, Tomato, and Zucchini Soup with Basil

This is pretty much the only recipe I make from Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything. Half the reason for doing this post is to record the recipe, as the page it’s on is falling out and I’m afraid I’ll lose it.

  • 4 cups chicken stock
  • 4 ears fresh corn
  • 2 tablespoons butter or olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, minced
  • 2 cups cored, peeled, seeded and chopped tomatos (I’m too lazy for this and use Muir Glen diced, it’s fine)
  • 1 medium zucchini (about half a pound), diced
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic
  • salt and pepper
  • 1/2 cup fresh basil, minced
  • 1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar (I’m pretty sure I use a tablespoon)

Heat the stock in a large, deep saucepan.  Strip the kernels from the corn and add the cobs to the stock (break them in half if necessary);  let them simmer while you prep the other veggies.

Heat the butter or oil in a skillet over medium heat.  Add the onion and cook, stirring, until it begins to soften, about 5 minutes.  Add the tomatos, zucchini, garlic, salt and pepper, and cook, stirring occasionally for about 10 minutes.  (Don’t let the zucchini turn to mush, you want it soft but with texture.)

Remove the corn cobs from the stock and add the veggies to the stock.  Cook until the zucchini is fully done (tender but not mushy), about 5 minutes.  Add the corn kernels and basil. 

ADD THE VINEGAR. BE AMAZED AT THE DIFFERENCE. Adjust seasoning as necessary.

* It’s part of a discussion on why beans cause flatulence.  We know a lot about flatulence because of the space program, because it was feared that a really farty astronaut could asphyxiate himself.  Yes.  To win the Cold War, we had to study farts.

Contents © 2013 Rachel Sanders