Balsamic Vinegar – Not All Created Equal!

     This last week in June ushers in the Cook’s favorite summer culinary events. In the US, Independence Day is but a week away. In France, the 21 days of  Le Tour de France is about to begin, which always finds the Cook going to or hosting Tour breakfasts with fellow cyclists and friends that just like to eat for free. All are welcome! Mixed in, there is Bastille Day, which for the Cook, means a Tour breakfast in the morning and a Bastille Day celebration dinner in the evening, all in all, about 24 hours of cooking, eating, and merriment. What is your favorite summer culinary event?

      For the Cook, summer menus are the easiest to plan. It is a season with abundant fruits and berries, fresh vegetables and herbs, and a choice of hot and cold preparations. The Cook does not find cold potato salad particularly inviting when it is snowing and minus 10 C outside. But in the summer, it is a standout and what BBQ can be considered complete without potato salad in one form or another as an offering.

     The Cook keeps the summer meals on the lighter side. This is the season to experiment with sandwiches and protein enhanced salads. A favorite sandwich of the Cook’s is so simple: fresh baked beer bread, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena (balsamic vinegar), tomato slices, and fresh basil, paired with a Spumante Brut, and good to go. Follow this with a fresh fruit medley tossed with a touch of Cointreau and fresh mint; very light and refreshing – just a perfect finale.

Speaking of Balsamic! 

     Balsamic vinegar has been produced in the Italian provinces of Modena and Reggio for about one thousand years but was only known to the local population and to Europe’s royalty. In early times, Balsamic, derives its name from balm (curative) and was considered a medicinal, an early day snake oil, as it was claimed as the cure for any ailment. Not until the last 25 to 30 years, has the artisanal balsamic vinegars been sold to the market place. Now, balsamic vinegar is the top selling vinegar, especially in the United States, where it accounts for some 40 percent of all grocery vinegar sales. Balsamic vinegars are produced in numerous countries but none have been judged to compare with the quality and taste of those that are produced in Modena and Reggio. These are considered as fine liqueurs.

Why can one pay 2 dollars versus 200 dollars for a bottle of balsamic vinegar?

 Balsamic Vinegar: Not All Created Equal!

      Here is where the price difference comes into play and it relates to how the vinegars are produced; one named Artisan and the other named Commercial. True Italian artisanal balsamic vinegars must meet criteria for certification within the Modena, Reggio Emila, and Spilamberto balsamic consortiums, and will have a label affixed to the bottle showing that certification. The bottles will each have their own distinctive shape as well. Expect to pay a premium for these balsamic vinegars. For certification, these vinegars must be aged for, at the least, 12 years and not contain any wine vinegar or caramel. Artisan crafted balsamic involves a long process of decanting in numerous stages and in different wooden casks, very similar to the production of fine ports. Only boiled down grape must is used. The Trebbiano and Lambrusco grapes are the primary varieties used. Artisanal balsamic vinegars made outside of the Modena and Reggio Emila districts may not have any production requirements nor testing, so the quality may be variable; could be good- could be not so good!

      Commercial balsamic vinegars are the most common vinegars found in the mass distribution system. These tend to be more acidic and less complex in flavor than their artisanal brothers. Commercial balsamics typically are made in large quantities and can be produced in a matter of days. Many will be produced by combining wine vinegars, caramel, and some grape must together and have no young balsamic at all. The better quality commercial vinegars will use some young balsamic as a part of the blend. Some may even be aged for 2 to 8 years but the bottom line is there are no regulations governing the commercial production of balsamic vinegar so it is a buyer beware purchase.

                                             The Cook’s recommendations:

     *Buy a bottle of certified balsamic and use that fresh only and in small quantities. Do not use to cook with! These balsamic vinegars will have incredible flavor, so a small amount goes along way. Drizzle a small amount on grilled poultry, seafood, and meats; on fresh fruit; on fruit tarts, and on cheeses or sip a bit as a liqueur. Store in a dark cool place.

Cavalli Gold Seal – 25 year
Manicardi – 12 or 18 year

      *Buy a bottle of good quality commercially produced balsamic for additions into dishes, reductions, marinades, vinaigrettes, and glazes.

Lucini Gran Riserva
Monari Federzoni
Manicardi – 6 year

See ya next time and Happy 4th, and enjoy the Tour my cycling friends!

The Cook

Cheese—“Cheese its good!” (A famous “Tool Time” saying)

     The Chinese have a saying that a meal without tea is like cooking without rice. For the Cook, a meal without cheese is, well… just not a meal. Cheese is great for the antipasto, the first dish, the second dish, and dessert.

 Disclaimer: Cheeses can be high in saturated fats (not a good fat) therefore; some restraint and moderation should be practiced when eating cheeses.

     There are numerous cheeses produced around the world, ranging from the mild fresh cheeses to the hard grating cheeses. Each cheese will exhibit its own flavour and characteristics depending upon the milk used as the base. Cheeses are made most predominately from the milk of goats, sheep, and cows. The process is centuries old and involves adding to milk, a starter. This can be an enzymatic rennet or an acid which causes the milk to coagulate into curds. The liquid that remains after this process is called the whey…oh, remember that old curds and whey saying? Little Miss Muffet sat on her tuffet eating her curds and way. Along came a spider (politically correct: arachnoid) well, you remember the rest. The curds then are used as fresh cheeses or are pressed, formed, sometimes injected with a mold, and then aged.

     Natural cheeses are living and have a certain lifespan like all living things. Once cheese has over-ripened, it is done. (More about storing and using cheese later.)

 Types of Cheese:

 Fresh:  include cottage, feta, mascarpone, mozzarella, and ricotta. Most of the fresh cheeses will have a mild and tangy taste. Some of the fresh cheeses can be used in cooking, such as pizza and pasta but these really shine when used fresh.

 Soft: brie, camembert, pont-l Eveque (French classic “stinky cheese”)  present  a variety of flavours but all are soft and creamy cheeses. Most have edible surface molds or skins. Shelf life is from 1 day to 1 week. If the cheese develops a discoloured rind or smells like ammonia, it is gone. Discard it!

 Semisoft: edam, morbier, muenster, fontina, taleggio, and port salut. These are firmer than the soft cheeses and do not grate. Many varieties have a wax coating which helps to preserve the cheese. Most semisofts are mild in flavour and have a bit of an elastic texture. These can last up to 6 weeks with proper storage.

 Tip: do not eat the wax coating. It will not hurt you but gives one that dreaded red goo stuck between the teeth look, considered to be bad diner party form!

 Hard & Grating: cheddars, gloucester, emmenthaler (swiss), provolone, asiago, romano, and perhaps best known… parmigiano. The Cook combined these two classes for simplicity but the grating cheese have a tendency towards being crumbly or grana (grain). They do not slice well, whereas the hard cheeses will slice well. The Cook could devote a whole article on parmigiano and may do so in the future.

     If the Cook had only one cheese to choose, it would be parmigiano-reggiano, a parmigiano that is made only in the Emila-Romagna and a small part of the Lombardy districts of Italy. Parmigian style cheeses are made in many other parts of the world but they are not all the same as Reggiano. The hard cheeses will last up to 6 weeks.

Blues:  No…not singing the blues, although many people sing the blues after eating this very strong and pungent blue veined cheese. Roquefort and gorganzola are the most common varieties. Blue cheeses can be grainy or smooth and creamy. This family of cheese is made by the injection of special mold cultures into the cheese before the ripening (aging) process. This is what gives the cheese the distinctive blue veins. Tip: The Cook likes to use these blues to stuff a lamb burger! You can try it with your favorite meat burger.

      The Cook has been told not to make these bits too long so the Cook will leave you with a few ideas on preserving your cheeses.

 Store cheeses in perforated cheese papers or, if it is a stinky cheese, in an air tight container. Keep them in the coolest part of your frig and away from any strong smelling foods. Cheese has an affinity to absorb flavours. Do not rewrap your cheeses in the packaging that it came to you. This can prematurely age the cheese and promote bacterial growth. Use fresh wrap each time.

Is cheese that comes in a can really cheese?

The Cook is a snob! The Cook only uses canned cheese for shooting practice!!!!


Thanks for reading and see ya next time.

 The Cook

Budino  –  An Italian Pudding

    This classic Italian dessert is made with fresh mascarpone cheese and is the perfect finale to a summer’s night patio diner party menu.        Serves 8

¾ cup heavy whipping cream
¼ cup sugar
1 cup mascarpone
3 teaspoons whole milk
1 teaspoon vanilla bean paste or extract
2 teaspoons instant espresso powder
4 tablespoons Sumbuca or any anise flavoured liqueur
cocoa powder or shaved bittersweet chocolate for topping.

      In a medium bowl, beat together the cream and sugar until thickened and soft peaks form.

      In a separate medium bowl, beat together the mascarpone, milk, and vanilla paste until  smooth.

      With a spatula, fold in the whipped cream mixture into the mascarpone. Then gently stir in  the espresso powder and Sambuca. Do not over mix at this point.

      Spoon into 8 dessert cups, or espresso mugs and top as desired.

      Serve immediately but the dessert can be held up to 4 hours in the refrigerator.

 “Squisito!  Tante grazie.”

Pancakes, Waffles & Crepes – the old or new way!

This past week, the Cook has had instruction on how to write for a blog. This instruction was directed towards helping the Cook write so you, the reader, could easily read the blog, to maintain interest in the blog, and so on. All of the instruction was very interesting and, with certainty, affirmed that the Cook is not a techno-wiz.

New and improved, getting in step with the times, is what the Cook was told needs to be done. Will this happen? The Cook is not sure; this is yet to be determined. Can one teach the old dog new tricks? Does the dog want to learn new tricks? Is the old way not really as bad as it is being claimed to be? TBD!

The Cook does like old, as an example, the Cook loves the feel, sound, and feed-back that is characteristic to the old 1916 Remington typewriter. The distinctive snap of metal keys hitting a piece of paper rolled over a hard piece of rubber! The ease with which the two to four fingers typist can fly over the key layout, occasionally getting the wayward finger stuck between keys. There is an immediate sense of correctness or error.

Unless the readers are over 95 years old, that typewriter is older than any of the current population of blog readers and it still works just fine. Will you still work fine when you are 95? The long and short is that the Cook will attempt to be a more in-tune blog writer, but still asks for the reader’s patience when things revert to the old ways. The hope is that since the Cook stays in-tune with current trends within the world of food, the same will happen to the Cook’s writing.


Pancakes, Waffles and Crepes.

   The Cook loves pancakes and waffles, but with apologies to the crepe…um! Light, crisp waffles with fresh berries, a few pieces of perfectly crisped bacon; hard to beat for breakfast, lunch, or diner. Tall, light, and non-doughy pancakes with fresh fruit cooked in are also a versatile all meal fare.

    But you say your berries sink to the bottom and cause that cake to stick to the griddle, ah… there is an easy fix. TIP:  put your scoop of dough onto the griddle or into the waffle iron, let it cook for 20 to 30 seconds, then sprinkle your fruit onto the dough. Close the lid after this addition if doing waffles.

    Do you want an extra crunchy waffle or pancake treat. Sprinkle a teaspoon of Belgian or Swedish Pearl Sugar on as outlined above for the fruit. Thanks to our Scandinavian friends for this tip.


The Cook’s Old Pancake and Waffle Recipe

The Cook uses this base recipe for both pancakes and waffles.

 192 grams (1 ½ cups)  King Arthur White Wheat or any good quality all-purpose flour
1 ½ teaspoons of baking powder
¾ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon of salt
1 tablespoon sugar
1 large egg (2 for waffles)
3 tablespoons (5 for waffles) melted butter
1 ½ cups of buttermilk (if you use regular milk: omit using the baking soda!)

    Melt the butter in a small pan or in glass bowl in microwave. Set aside. Heat griddle or waffle iron to highest setting.

    Place all of the dry ingredients into a large mixing bowl and wisk with a wire whip to combine and lighten. Whip the egg until light then add the buttermilk. Whip this until light and airy, about 1 minute. Add this to the dry mixture and combine with a few quick strokes. Fold the melted butter into the batter. Do not over mix. There will be some lumps and that is OK.

 Thanks for reading and see ya next time.

The Cook.