Back in the 90s it was de rigueur to serve a small dish of olive oil and balsamic vinegar with bread at the beginning of every restaurant meal. It became so popular (and we were so addicted to it, too) that even those places that weren’t serving cucina rustica Italiana would offer it. It may have dropped off the culinary agenda slightly now but Italians still love to serve balsamic in numerous ways…

WITH FINGERS OF FENNEL

This makes a nice alternative to hunks of bread. Slice ½ fennel bulb in half through the root and cut away the core. Then slice the rest of it, still cutting lengthways, into finger-sized pieces. Spoon 2 tablespoons of good extra virgin olive oil and 1 tablespoon of balsamic vinegar into a small dish. The one-part vinegar to two of olive oil provides the right balance of acidity to the slightly fruity-flavoured fennel. Arrange the fennel fingers on a plate to serve with the dip.

DOTTED OVER CARPACCIO

This tricolore salad – red from the wafer-thin slices of raw beef fillet, white from shaved Parmesan and green from rocket leaves – is wonderfully simple to prepare. Wrap the tubular fillet (anything from 5cm upwards) in cling film then freeze until firm. Take off the cling film and use a very sharp knife to slice the beef fillet into thin rounds. Arrange each piece, slightly overlapping, on a large platter. Scatter over some rocket and top with shavings of Parmesan cheese. Drizzle a little balsamic vinegar over the top and season with freshly ground black pepper before serving. If you can, use the syrupy and slightly sweeter variety of balsamic for this and just trickle it over. It’ll provide a foil to the peppery bite of the rocket.

SERVED WITH STEAK

Simply plonk a bottle on the table straight after your just-over-the-coals slab of meat has been presented. Again, the good syrupy variety, drizzled over sparingly, is wonderful here to bring out the flavours of the meat.

AS PART OF A THREE-INGREDIENT SALAD

A favourite in Bologna, this comprises the leaves of bitter red chicory, grilled mortadella (the baby-pink cured pork sausage dotted with white spots of pork fat) and just a drizzle of balsamic vinegar over the top. The sweet flavour of the balsamic counteracts the bitterness of the chicory, while the fatty mortadella adds the essential meaty flavour.

TO SEASON TORTELLONI

Cook a batch of ricotta-based tortelloni and drain well. Return to the pan with a knob of butter and some finely grated Parmesan and season well. Spoon among plates and drizzle over balsamic vinegar before serving. Just like salt and pepper, this acidic seasoning should only be a little addition as it serves as a high note to the other ingredients rather than a major player.

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