Acid and Fat

My neighbor Chris, a man of noble appetite and impeccable palate, invited us over for a Sunday barbecue. It was the much-hyped, much-feared “Carmageddon” weekend, in which the busiest freeway in the country would be shut down for two days. No one was going anywhere. So the commute 50 or so feet to the Watermans’ house sounded perfect. And I took it as a good omen when I saw Chris out in his pajamas at 8 a.m. that morning, tending to his smoker.

The Man & his smoker, "R2D2"

Chris hails from Florida, close enough to the smoking belt of the Deep South to count. More

Beyond Balsamic

Sometimes I’ll be cooking at someone’s home, and will ask them for vinegar. And inevitably, they’ll hand me a bottle of balsamic.

Don’t get me wrong, balsamic is a wonderful member of the vinegar family. But it is not the ONLY member of the vinegar family. And it is also not the most adaptable vinegar. It’s really good for when you need balsamic, but not very useful otherwise. At any given time, I have eight to 10 different vinegars in my cupboard. I’m not suggesting you need this many. But having at least a handful will improve not only salads but your cooking, too.

Here is a primer on various vinegars I have in my pantry, what they can be used for, and where to find them. (Including, yes, balsamic…)

The Most Useful Vinegar


Japanese sweetened rice wine vinegar

This is my go-to vinegar for nearly everything. Its light flavor and slight sweetness make it bring out the best in whatever it is flavoring or dressing. You’ll see this often in my recipes. You can find it at most grocery stores, in Japanese markets, at Trader Joe’s or online.

The Most Exotic Vinegars

Chinese black vinegar and dilluted red vinegar

Chinese vinegars are among the most floral and exotic of all. Black vinegar tastes of caramel, spice and tamarind. Red vinegar has one of the most interesting flavors of all, although the main thing I use it for is dim sum pork dumplings. These vinegars can be found in Asian markets or online.

The Funnest Vinegar

Malt vinegar

I’ve awarded this vinegar “funnest” simply because it reminds me of being in a pub and eating fish & chips. And what’s more fun than that!? Widely available at supermarkets.

The Most Expensive Vinegar

Aged balsamic

People will pay you to hang onto your product for a long time before you sell it. This balsamic was aged 25 years, and probably cost a small fortune. (It was a gift, you see.) Like a long-aged wine, it’s flavors are gentle, nuanced and complex. I wouldn’t really recommend this for anyone but the most fervent balsamic devotee, as the average person would be unlikely to tell the difference in a salad. (Myself included.) Buy in Italy, if you must.

The Most Mexican Vinegar

Apple cider vinegar

This is the vinegar I use in any Mexican dishes requiring vinegar. It’s got a nice appley flavor. It’s also great in marinades and sauces for barbecue. Widely available.

The Second Most Useful Vinegar

Red wine vinegar

Your basic red wine vinegar, available everywhere. Great for vinaigrettes and lightly dressed salads such as Cobb salad.

Balsamic Redux

These thickened balsamic products are basically quick and easy versions of a balsamic reduction, which you’ll often find decorating a plate in a fancy Italian joint. (Those little gooey dots all over the plate.) They essentially serve the same decorative function in my cooking that kecap manis (profiled in an earlier post) does. These were a gift someone brought me from Italy, but you can find them online or in fine Italian grocers.

Sushi 101

It took me a bloody decade to learn how to properly make sushi rice. I’m going to tell you right here and now so you won’t suffer the same fate.

Crab & matsutake dynamite

Once you’ve got the rice made, the rest is paint by numbers. Although you’ve gotta have a nice sharp knife and really fresh fish, which I get at the Japanese market. They’ve got everything I could want — toro, hamachi, albacore, uni, sweet shrimp, halibut, salmon, etc. If you live in a big city you’ll have no problem finding a Japanese market with sashimi-quality fish. If you live in a reasonably good town, you should at least be able to find some sashimi-grade ahi (Trader Joe’s has sashimi-grade ahi and frozen sashimi-grade scallops, which I’m gonna tell you how to make scallop “dynamite” with…) If you live in the country, you may have to settle for cooked shrimp.

Here’s how to do the rice:

1 cup short-grain white rice (Calrose or sushi rice)
2 cups water
1 tbsp. seasoned rice wine vinegar (or 1 tbsp. rice wine vinegar and 1 tsp. sugar, mixed)

Rinse the rice in water: put the rice in the pot you intend to cook it in, and run some tap water over it. Swish it with your hand. It will become cloudy. Pour the water out, and repeat until it’s no longer cloudy (usually takes me 4 or 5 rinsings/swishings). Then cover with water and let sit for 15 minutes.

Drain the rice (all the water does not need to be drained, just most of it), add your 2 cups of water, cover and place on high heat. Once your rice begins to boil, cook for one minute. (You may need to lift the lid once or twice to prevent it from boiling over.) After the minute, turn to low, cover and cook for exactly five minutes. Once the five minutes is up, turn heat to high again and cook for 30 more seconds. Turn off and leave sitting, covered, for 20 minutes.

When the 20 minutes is up, remove lid and add vinegar, stirring very gently with a wooden spoon or spatula without breaking the rice kernels. When done, spread the rice within the pan and cover with a damp towel until ready to use.

For sushi, you’ll slice your piece of fish width-wise across the grain into sashimi-size pieces. Then you dampen your hands, take about a heaping teaspoon of rice in one palm, place two fingers from the other hand on top of it and fold your hand around it to form a small sushi rice patty. Repeat until you have as many rice balls as you have fish slices. Smear each with a dab of wasabi and place your sushi on top. “Irasshaimase!!!”

Or, you can make the ever-popular scallop dynamite, which I might happily point out makes ample use of mayonnaise (I made it in the above picture with king crab instead of scallops, and delicious matsutake mushrooms which are available in the fall at Japanese markets or in the woods near my mom’s house):

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Scallop Dynamite

1/2 lb large scallops, cut in quarters
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/4 cup sliced mushrooms
1/4 cup white onion, cut lengthwise into slivers
1/4 cup shelled edamame beans (soybeans)
Dash of chili sauce (Mexican, srirachi, whatever you’ve got…)
Dash of soy sauce
1/4 cup grated jack, mozzarella or colby cheese
toasted sesame seeds

Mix together all the above ingredients except the cheese and sesame seeds, being careful not to destroy the mushrooms in the process. Place in a small baking dish or a sheet of foil with the edges turned up. Sprinkle cheese over the top, and broil in a hot oven for 10 or 15 minutes, until the cheese is bubbly and golden. Remove.

Put a scoop of sushi rice on each of two plates (four smaller scoops if you’re serving this as an appetizer) and flatten out slightly. Carefully divide the dynamite between the two plates, scooping on top of the rice (you don’t want one guy to get all the yummy golden cheesy part). Sprinkle with sesame seeds and serve.