When I was growing up, in white bread, middle class America, cooking oil was a generic sort of thing and vinegar was an equally nondescript - and acrid-smelling - potion that I couldn't stand to be in the same room with. Of course, things have changed quite a bit over the past few decades. If you don't believe it, check out exhibit A - Michael Chiarello's cookbook devoted entirely to flavored oils and vinegars.
Splitting the book into two sections, Chiarello opens with oil, noting that olive oil plays a more important role in an Italian kitchen than any other ingredient. As for flavored oils, they "capture and preserve the aroma and flavor of an herb at the peak of its season, add depth and strength to kitchen pantries, and shorten cooking times."
Lest you suspect that the author is a dilettante when it comes to this sort of thing, keep in mind that he had a mill imported from abroad so that he could experiment with pressing his own olive oil. Chiarello now sells his own line of flavored oils.
Before getting to the recipes, Chiarello offers up a useful primer on California Olive Oil Production (99% of the olives grown here come from California) and breaks down the difference between extra virgin olive oil, virgin olive oil and the lower grades.
The author says "making infused oils harnesses the flavor of an ingredient and often makes it easier to use that flavor in cooking." Chapter one - Making and Using Flavored Oils - explains this process and Chiarello points out that "flavored oils in Italian cooking were not an end in themselves, they were a by-product of something else." Among the oils covered, citrus, herb and garlic. The rest of the oil section devotes a chapter each - complete with a sampling of recipes - to a different flavored oil.
In chapter two, it's basil olive oil and recipes like Basil-Garlic Mayonnaise and the PLT - Pancetta, Lettuce, and Tomato Sandwich. Chapter three's recipes include Garlic-Stuffed Lamb and Rigatoni with White Beans and Roasted Peppers, all of which make use of oregano olive oil.
Rosemary olive oil is employed in chapter four in a Roasted Pepper Salad and a concoction called a Pepperonata, which is made up of tomatoes, peppers, and more. There's also a Harvest Focaccia recipe that can do double duty as bread sticks.
Chiarello's recipe for Sautéed Spinach is the essence of simplicity - with just spinach, bacon, roasted garlic olive oil and salt and pepper. Garlic lovers will naturally rejoice at the Garlic Smashed Potatoes, which uses as much as a cup of the infusion per two pounds of potatoes.
Pepper olive oil is also employed rather simply in Scrambled Eggs and in a more complex dish like Brodetto of Manila Clams and Dried Sausage, a seafood broth that can also be used as a pasta sauce.
Chapter seven's porcini oil could conceivably contribute to mushroom overload, if it were used, as recommended, in the authorŐs Mushroom Hash. This utilizes two pounds of mushrooms in addition to the oil. As for the citrus oil covered in the next chapter, the author says most any citrus fruit can be used to make it. He's devised - among other things - an unusual Tomato and Red Onion Sandwich, which uses tomato in lieu of bread.
Then it's on to the vinegar. Chiarello is bullish on vinegar, which takes its name from the French for "sour wine." "The cuisine of every country, it seems, depends in part on vinegar, and each has its own vinegar with particular characteristics." Once upon a time, according to Chiarello, "every American housewife made her own vinegar, often from whatever fruit happened to be plentiful at the time."
There are a bunch of recipes here that use fruit vinegar. Among the more notable ones, Grilled Chicken Marinated in Mango Vinegar and Tarragon, Mango Granita, and a truly weird concoction known as a Grilled Calamari Salad Pizza Sandwich.
In the savory vinegars chapter, Chiarello says "just about anything that can be roasted and preserved will work as a savory vinegar." Among the ones he includes instructions for making are tomato, roasted garlic, and caramelized onion. The latter is employed to good effect in a dish known as Carpaccio of Beets with Goat Cheese. Also on the rather innovative side is a Pork Short Stack that alternates layers of pork with asparagus.
The balsamic vinegar chapter discusses - not surprisingly - what constitutes the genuine article, as well as how it's made. Recipes here range from basic - Balsamic Roasted Onions - to not nearly so basic - Roasted Fall Fruit Salad with Parmesan Gelato.
Then its on to a chapter on wine and cider vinegar. This includes instructions on how to make the former and recipes for Grilled Radicchio with Zinfandel Sauce and Crispy Seafood with Mustard Seed Vinegar, a recipe that can be adapted to a variety of seafood. Also noteworthy, a Smoked Lentil and Shelling Bean Stew.
The proceedings conclude with a chapter on herbal vinegar and a glossary and buying guide. Chiarello recommends making herbal vinegar in small batches to preserve the delicate flavors and says that ideally it's best when it's made right before using it.
If you're looking to expand your repertoire of oil and vinegar usage beyond the usual boring suspects, but you don't know where to start, Chiarello's book is probably not a bad choice.
William I. Lengeman III is a food writer, book reviewer and publisher of Tea Guy Speaks and Weird Eats.
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