Fifty years ago, the balsamic vinegar industry that we know didn’t exist. That’s not to say that balsamic vinegar didn’t exist. It’s been made for centuries in the attics of almost every well-to-do family’s home in Modena, Italy. It’s just that no one outside of Modena knew about it. It wasn’t a conspiracy. It’s more like how if you came to my house I wouldn’t make a big point of telling you that I have aspirin in my medicine cabinet.
Because that’s kind of how balsamic was traditionally used. It was medicine. If you had a headache, take some balsamic. An upset stomach? Balsamic. (If my mom had given me balsamic medicine I probably would have been “sick” a lot more often.) It was so prized for its medicinal benefits that cooking with balsamic was seen as throwing it away.
On the rare occasions when balsamic was used for cooking it was a sign of extreme opulence.
If you were an Italian count throwing a dinner party in the late 15th century, one way to impress your guests was to serve them balsamic. You’d siphon a bit off from the barrel into the fanciest cruet you could find, carry it to the table and make a big show of drizzling it over rich dishes: roasted meats, or risottos, or stuffed pasta. It would never be wasted on a salad. Wild bitter greens and simple vegetables—those were poor people’s food.
By the 1960s the word about balsamic started to get out and food tourists put Modena on their itinerary. Demand grew but the supply didn’t. Traditional balsamic was (and is) still made the way it always had been: aged for a dozen or more years in small wooden barrels. These days, you’ll be hard pressed to find a bottle of real traditional balsamic selling for less than $100.
Around that time, though, some balsamic makers started looking for ways to offer a more affordable version. While traditional balsamic is made exclusively from cooked grape juice (called “must”), these folks added wine vinegar. They also shortened the aging times, sometimes to just a couple of months. The result was a balsamic that could be made in much larger quantities and sold at a much lower price. It took off. By the late 1980s you could find a bottle of this former home remedy in nearly every kitchen in America.
That flood of balsamic on the market isn’t always good.
At its worst, balsamic condiment—the name often given to non-traditional balsamico—is caramel colored sugar water made with little must, cheap red wine vinegar, coloring and sugar. Read the ingredient list, it will list any large-scale abominations: you want to see one where grape must is the first ingredient (if not the only). If it costs less than ten bucks it’s probably “balsamic” in name only. Done with care, though, like with the vinegars of La Vecchia Dispensa, balsamic makes an excellent addition to the kitchen.
Here a very natural and tasty soup coming from the roman kitchen of our friend Elizabeth Minchilli!
When’s the last time you read a recipe for carrots and thought “Oh, I can’t wait to make that!” Carrots are just one of those vegetables that rarely merit our excitement. Like potatoes and onions that sit in a basket in a dark place, waiting to be used without fear of going bad, carrots share the lower drawer of my refrigerator with a few stalks of celery and maybe a bunch of parsley. They are there if I need them in an emergency, or else to play a minor role as a background note in a more complicated recipe.
But the carrots at the farmer’s market the other day were just so beautiful, that I couldn’t bear to banish them to the fridge for even one minute. And while I could have made a salad, or roasted them around a chicken, I decided they needed to shine on their own.
Since it’s been raining non stop for weeks now, soup seemed a good choice. While I’ve made carrot soup in the past, in the summer, I wanted something heartier and more stick-to-your-ribs for a cold winter day. So instead of simply adding the carrots to a pot of simmering broth, I roasted them at high heat first.
Roasting carrots is the best thing to do when they are very sweet. The high heat means that the edges will begin to darken and caramelize, giving a depth and savoriness to them. And to give it a woody flavor, I added a few sprigs of freshly picked rosemary from our rainy terrace.
Leeks, sauteed until they began to fall apart, added a silky texture and earthiness.
Once the soup was done, a whizz of the immersion blender brought it all together and made it soup. Rather than give a final squeeze of lemon, for acidity, I decided on a bolder drizzle of balsamic vinegar. But my final decision was (in my humble opinion) brilliant. Instead of toasting croutons to add a crunchy and filling component to what was actually a pretty light soup, I decided to add little cubes of crispy crunchy pancetta along with a teaspoon or two of the hot pork fat. Because, if I said it before I’ll say it again, everything tastes better with pancetta.
Ingredients (serves 4 to 6):
- 1 kilo / 2 pounds carrots, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch slices
- 5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 4 sprigs of rosemary
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 1 large leek, white part only, rinsed and finely chopped
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1/2 c. white wine
- 1/2 cup cubed pancettta
- Balsamic Vinegar of Modena Gold Label
Preheat oven to 200 C/ 400 F.
Place the sliced carrots in a bowl, and add 4 tablespoons of olive oil and about a tsp of salt and toss well to coat.
Lay the carrots out into a single layer onto an oven sheet. Drizzle any extra oil from the bowl on top. Tuck the rosemary sprigs in between.
Roast the carrots until done and edges begin to turn dark, about 20 minutes. Keep an eye on them so they don’t burn.
In the meantime, put 1 tablespoon of olive oil and the butter in a large pot over medium heat. Add the leeks, 1/2 tsp of salt and pepper. Cook until the leeks are completely softened, but do not let brown. About a half hour. Add the white wine and let bubble for a minute or so.
Take the carrots out and remove the rosemary branches (it’s ok if the leaves remain, just make sure you get the tough branches out)
Add the carrots to the pot, stir and add enough water to cover the carrot by about an inch and a half. Cover and let simmer for about a half hour. Let cool down a bit and, using an immersion blender, puree until smooth. You can do this in a food processor if you prefer. The soup is pretty thick, so if you’d like to thin it out a bit add a cup of broth or milk.
In the meantime heat a small frying pan and add the pancetta cubes. Cook until the pancetta is well browned and crispy.
To serve, reheat the soup and the pancetta bits. Spoon the soup into individual bowls, swirl a bit of balsamic vinegar on top, and top with bits of pancetta and as much of the pork fat as you can justify to yourself.
*Since the balsamic vinegar is used here as a last and final touch, you want to use the good stuff. You don’t have to break out the 25 year old tiny bottle, but please make sure you are using real, true aged balsamic and not the horrid stuff that is only colored with caramel and flavored with sugar.