- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 28, 2004

It’s hard to avoid balsamic vinegar, the barrel-aged Italian condiment. You see it in everything from bottled dressings to restaurant menus.

Balsamic vinegar’s charm is that it’s slightly sweet, with none of that sharp vinegar taste. If you like milder raspberry or other fruit vinegar, you will appreciate balsamic vinegar.

Most of what is in the supermarket is palatable and well-suited to salads or splashing on a sandwich. However, there’s also artisanal balsamic vinegar, made in small quantities, aged for years and brought to market with as much fanfare as fine truffles or caviar.

No wonder. A finely crafted balsamic vinegar can cost $50 or more for a modest-size bottle. You’re paying for the artisan’s skill, the limited production and the romance of the product. Fortunately, this vinegar is so intense, a few drops are all you’ll need to flavor a dish.

In his new book, “Rick & Lanie’s Excellent Kitchen Adventures” (Stewart, Tabori and Chang), the Chicago chef and author Rick Bayless describes how his family stayed in a home in Italy where cask-aged balsamic vinegar was made. Now Mr. Bayless and his family use that same balsamic vinegar in special dishes for their celebrations.

You can create your own rituals with balsamic vinegar. I suggest a New Year’s Day brunch as the perfect occasion for using the vinegar and other fine ingredients. Despite the expense, the splurge is worth it. The better tasting the ingredients, the less preparation you’ll have to do.

To start, make a salad of oranges, mint and walnuts. Lightly drizzle with balsamic vinegar — think of it as a perfume you’re dabbing on a dish — and honey, and you’re done. For a simple entree, whip up a zesty spread of smoked salmon, cream cheese and horseradish.

Use smoked salmon trimmings in this recipe if your supermarket stocks them. They’re about half the price of sliced smoked salmon and every bit as flavorful.

You’ll find high-quality balsamic vinegar in gourmet food stores. On the Web, www.chefshop.com sells several brands.

Orange salad

2 medium navel oranges

1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint

2 tablespoons chopped walnuts

2 teaspoons mild honey

1 teaspoon finest-quality aged balsamic vinegar

Coarsely ground black pepper.

Peel oranges and slice thinly widthwise. Arrange on serving platter. Sprinkle with fresh mint and walnuts. Drizzle with honey and balsamic vinegar. Sprinkle with pepper. Makes 2 servings.

Smoked salmon spread

2 ounces smoked salmon

1 3-ounce package cream cheese

1 teaspoon drained white horseradish

2 tablespoons half-and-half

1 tablespoon minced chives

Dash of fresh lemon juice

Bagels or crusty rye bread

Combine salmon, cream cheese, horseradish, and half-and-half in food processor fitted with steel blade. Mince to a paste. Remove to a bowl. Stir in chives and lemon juice. Spread over bagels or rye bread. Makes 2 servings.

TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES

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