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Vim and Vinegar


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.”

At Zazu Kitchen + Farm in Sebastopol, chef/owner Duskie Estes relies on sherry vinegar to finish her Blistered Padrons + Marcona Almonds dish in the summer. She also uses vinegar for pickling — everything from rhubarb and cherries to cauliflower and peppers — and always finishes pork dishes with it.

“Acid balances out fat on your taste buds,” she said. “Pasture-raised pork has more fat, so we love vinegars to balance for us.”

Meanwhile, her husband John Stewart enjoys making his own red wine and apple cider vinegars, which tend to have a higher acidity (about 7 percent) than commercial vinegars (about 4 to 5 percent).

“Especially in the summer, I like the higher acid on bread salads, potato salads and pulled pork,” Stewart said. “The bright acid softens overnight and is just really flavorful.”

Consumers can also find low-acid vinegars made or sourced locally that can give food a mild but complex boost.

Sonomic Almost Vinegar, made by Sonoma Portworks of Petaluma, is a blend of unfermented grape juice and vinegar. It comes in two flavors: Gewurtztraminer and Cabernet.

“It is less acidic than vinegar,” said Caryn Reading, co-owner of Sonoma Portworks. “But it has a deep, rich flavor, like an aged balsamic. I call it the secret ingredient, because it’s so flavorful and rich.”

Reading likes to drizzle the Sonomic vinegar on meat and tomatoes, strawberries and grilled peaches filled with mascarpone. She also blends the cabernet version with Dijon mustard to marinate grilled salmon.

“The cabernet plays well with pork or lamb,” she said. “I put the Gewurztraminer in sparkling water with a sprig of mint.”

Steve Sando of the Rancho Gordo company in Napa imports an unusual Banana Vinegar from Veracruz, Mexico, made from the fermented juices of bananas.

“It’s not cloyingly sweet but it’s not too tart,” he said. “It’s pretty wild.”

Sando blends the Banana Vinegar with olive oil, garlic and Mexican oregano for a simple marinade for chicken, pork or shrimp. He also mixes it with Rancho Gordo’s Pilon Cillo (evaporated cane juice) and soda water to make a refreshing cocktail for summer.

“It’s somewhat tropical,” he said. “But you don’t need to wear a Hawaiian shirt to enjoy it.”

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The following four recipes are from Jeff and Susan Mall of Zin in Healdsburg. The Hot Pepper Vinegar is best on braised greens and barbecue pork.

Hot Pepper Vinegar

Makes 2 cups

½ pound small hot peppers, preferably Tabasco peppers

2 cups apple cider vinegar

1 tablespoon kosher salt

Wash peppers and remove stems. Leave whole otherwise.

Place peppers in sterilized glass bottles or jars. Fill halfway with peppers.

Bring vinegar and salt to a boil. Pour into bottles and jars. Let cool to room temperature. Refrigerate. Let sit one week before using.

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“I came up with this chicken marinade while working at the Border Grill on Melrose in Los Angeles,” Susan Mall said. “This has become Jeff’s favorite marinade for chicken when we grill in the back yard. “

Cumin Garlic Chicken

Serves 4 to 6

3 pounds chicken pieces

3 cloves garlic

1 teaspoon cumin, ground

½ teaspoon red pepper flakes

½ teaspoon salt

3 tablespoons cider vinegar

1 tablespoon olive oil

Mix all ingredients together and let chicken marinate at least 30 minutes, and up to two hours. Grill chicken or roast in a hot oven.

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This glaze is delicious when drizzled on grilled chicken

Sherry Vinegar Glaze

Makes about 2 cups

¾ cup fresh orange juice

1 cup sherry vinegar

½ cup Turbinado sugar (sugar in the raw)

½ teaspoon kosher salt

Combine all ingredients in a non-reactive saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook until reduced by two-thirds and has the consistency of syrup.

Refrigerate but let come to room temperature before using.

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Grilled Lemon Vinaigrette

Makes about 2 cups

5 lemons

½ cup diced shallots

½ cup rice wine vinegar

1 cup canola oil

½ cup extra virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon chopped Italian parsley

1 teaspoon kosher salt

¼ teaspoon fresh ground black pepper

Start grill or preheat oven broiler. Cut lemons in half and brush cut side with oil. Place on hot grill or under broiler and cook until side is well browned. Remove from heat and let cool.

When cool, juice the grilled lemons. Saute shallots briefly in 2 tablespoons canola oil to remove the raw edge. Place lemon juice, shallots and rice wine vinegar in blender. Emulsify with remaining canola and extra virgin olive oil. Season with salt and pepper. Add chopped parsley.

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This recipe is from Steve Sando of Rancho Gordo, who likes to use this marinade on pork tenderloin or chicken. Rancho Gordo’s Banana Vinegar is available at the Jimtown Store and Big John’s in Healdsburg and Sonoma Market and Sonoma’s Best in Sonoma.

Banana Vinegar Marinade

Makes ½ cup

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil

¼ cup Rancho Gordo Banana Vinegar

1 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon Mexican oregano

1 garlic clove, diced

Blend all of the ingredients together, pour over the chicken or pork and marinate in the fridge for four hours or more.

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This recipe is from Caryn Reading of Sonoma Portworks, which makes the Sonomic Almost Vinegars, available at Andy’s Produce in Sebastopol, Petaluma Market and Baker Creek Seed Bank in Petaluma, Sonoma Market and the Epicurean Connection in Sonoma, the Glen Ellen Market and Imwalle’s in Santa Rosa.

Grilled Sonomic Salmon

Makes 2 servings

1 pound wild salmon filet

⅓ cup Sonomic Almost Vinegar Cabernet

¼ cup Dijon mustard

1 to 2 teaspoons olive oil

Salt and pepper, to taste

1 lemon, sliced

Preheat the grill. Whisk together the Sonomic and the Dijon mustard in a small bowl.

Place the salmon, skin side down, on a large, double layer of foil. Rub the olive oil over the salmon, then brush half of the Sonomic/mustard mixture over the fish. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and place lemon slices on top of the filet.

Create a pouch by bringing together opposite edges of the foil and folding them. Then fold or crimp the ends, to completely seal the salmon in the foil.

Turn off the center burner on a gas grill, or move the coals to the outside of the grill.

Cook the foil-wrapped salmon over indirect heat for 10 to 12 minutes. Remove from heat and carefully open the steaming packet, taking care to keep the juices in the foil.

Transfer the salmon to a serving platter, spoon the juices and the other half of the Sonomic/mustard mixture over the salmon and serve.

Staff writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com