Vinegar is the new lemonade, a refreshing staple of summer showing up in all kinds of fruity “shrub” beverages on hip cocktail lists.
Summer is also the perfect time to add a dash of vinegar to meat marinades and finishing sauces, sauteed greens and blistered padron peppers, potato salads and vinaigrettes.
“When you think of summer, you think of zesty, bright flavors, and you want things to pop,” said Jeff Mall, chef/owner of Zin Restaurant and Wine Bar in Healdsburg. “When used the right way, vinegar really adds just a little pop to most everything.”
Stocking up on acidic and slightly sweet vinegars enables the savvy home cook to create quick but flavorful dinners without spending a lot of time in the kitchen. It can also take the place of salt and other seasoning as a flavor brightener.
“You may taste something bland, and think it needs salt, “ Mall said. “But if you add vinegar, it may not need as much salt.”
Mall likes to add Nana Mae’s Gravenstein Apple Cider Vinegar to slow-cooked dishes, such as sauteed collard greens he serves with Zin’s Sunday Night Fried Chicken dinner.
“We cook them low and slow, with bacon and onions, so it gets really murky,” he said. “It needs vinegar to give it a little life.”
He uses vinegar to finish other tough greens, such as spinach, kale or chard, as well as long-cooked soups that need a lift.
“I did a Roasted Tomato Soup this week, and added a little red wine vinegar at the end, “ he said. “It woke up the flavors.”
As a finishing sauce for grilled poultry, Mall slow-cooks down a Sherry Vinegar Reduction sauce with a little sugar.
If you were grilling chicken, you could add a vinegar glaze,” he said. “It’s everybody’s favorite combination of sweet and sour.“
Because vinegar’s high acid can clash with wine, however, many chefs prefer to use the more mellow verjus (green grape juice) or Banyuls vinegar (French vinegar made from sweet wine) in their vinaigrettes.
But Mall has another trick up his chef’s coat: using the milder, less acidic rice wine vinegar in vinaigrettes. “If we want to cut back on the acidity to make it a soft flavor so it goes with wine, we’ll blend it with some rice vinegar,” he said. “It makes the vinaigrette really well balanced.”
Mall also makes a Grilled Lemon Vinaigrette, mixing the grilled lemon juice with rice vinegar. He serves it as a garnish with fish and vegetables.
“It’s a unique flavor,” he said. “It caramelizes some of the sugars in the lemons, and it mellows the lemon out a little bit.”
Another trick that Mall learned from his wife, Susan, is to sprinkle the still-hot potatoes with apple cider vinegar to give potato salad a boost.
“It’s an absolute necessity for making really good potato salad,” he said. “It makes the flavor go all the way through.”
Vinegar is also a key component in Zin’s homegrown hot sauce, which marries high acidity with heat.
“At the end of the season, when all of our chiles are ripe, we’ll roast them and steep them in the vinegar for a couple of weeks,” he said. “Then we puree and strain it, and that becomes our hot sauce.”