Appetizer. Simple salad with balsamic reduction (mixed salad).
Feast. Grilled fillet steak. Steak with porcini mushroom. Gnocchi with asparagus. Pasta with pancetta.**
This restaurant totally made my day in Florence. My family was starving and we were running our asses off trying to find a particular restaurant called Teatro del Sale, which was a self-serve restaurant that featured all sorts of antipasto goodies, along with the Italian classics, without any of the flair. So we starving folk trekked all over, climbed over cars, dodged bikers, turned the corner onto the restaurant’s street…and the entire street was dead. Silent. Not a soul in sight. The restaurant, we found, was closed (unless the owners just pulled the metal door shut, and expected the locals to enter via a secret passageway). Highly unlikely, or Indiana Jones in the making. After about five minutes of staring at the closed shop (and hoping it would magically open and there would be a maître d’), we left and decided to pick a random restaurant off the street. Many of the locations were touristy, and I knew from experience how touristy restaurants usually turned out. Boring. Drab. Expensive. These kinds of places always tried to gouge you for your money. Anyhow, we ventured upon a small, tunneled street, devoid of any major tourists. I spotted the word “osteria” (meaning “local eats,” in Italian) hanging over a small restaurant. I pointed, heads turned, stomachs grumbled, and in we went.
The first indication that the restaurant was not suited for tourists was the fact that we couldn’t understand the menu at all. The entire thing was in Italian. We sat there, picking apart words and finally ended up ordering.
When ordering a “mixed salad” in the States, what you probably get is an equivalent of a bowl of sad-wilted looking greens (most likely from a pre-packaged plastic bag). Some cheap, watery vinegar and olive oil is usually provided, along with some sodium chloride (table salt…not the real stuff) and maybe some pre-ground chemical-y black pepper (Am I being a snob or what). A pre-determined, pre-made mess of what I wouldn’t even call a salad. Perhaps it’s the quality of European foods compared to States (or we were just a bunch of yee-haws from the States who goo-gah over everything in European countries). Either way, when the mixed salad came, it was a ridiculously simple plate. The olive oil was cloudy and dark green; the balsamic wasn’t runny, but rather syrupy, like a reduction, and there were flakes of grey sea salt, chased by cracked black pepper, and scattered amongst a handful of walnuts. What ultimately struck me as funny was the fact that the salad wasn’t difficult to eat. The syrupy consistency of the sauce was not cloying sweet, nor was it overpoweringly acidic. We didn’t have to stab at the delicate leaves and run it through a watery vinaigrette. It was perhaps the most gentle use of the fork that I’ve witnessed in quite some time. In other words, the sauce of the salad clung to the leaves extremely effectively.
My enjoyment of the salad resided in the quality of the reduced vinegar sort of deal. After quite a bit of thinking, and an exploration of my local supermarket, it became apparent that some balsamic vinegars were produced with a high or low viscosity. Sadly, from what I observed in the states, usually this viscosity was obtained by adding glucose-syrup, or additives such as xanthan gum or carnageenan (can’t pronounce it? Yeah, probably shouldn’t be eating it). It was time to sort of think how something like this could be made by using all natural ingredients, a bit of heat, and some other worldly additions.
We all know that in order to create a viscous solution one must evaporate solvent in order to increase the ratio of solute to solvent (solute being the solids dissolved in the solvent). You can boil water all day long and it’s not going to because thick and gluey (There’s no solutes to provide viscosity, besides trace minerals, and salt). A good example of this is when we make a sugar solution. Dump a bunch of sugar in some water, and then boil the water until the solution becomes very snot-like. Increasing viscosity is basically the increase of internal friction. More viscous equals slower fluid movements. Less viscous, more fluid movements. You want more fluidity in your water balloons (larger kill radius) and less fluidity when pouring revenge liquid over an adversary’s car windshield (caked on crap that doesn’t drip is harder to clean than simply rinsing). Apologies for the tangent example.
Breaking it down, I thought about what kind of components were present in a bottle of regular balsamic vinegar, and what were the potential steps to create a more syrupy sort of “coat” for the mouth. Balsamic vinegar is first and foremost made from the fermentation of grapes. The end product usually turns out to contain a mixture of sugars, acids, as well as glycerol, a by-product of fermentation (not counting the amazing flavor development that occurs when aged in wood-barrels, and the hundreds of chemical reactions that take place given humidity, temperature, and heat). Broken down to its constituents, balsamic vinegar really is just an acidic, fermented sort of concoction. Of course there’s water molecules in there, but in order to make it more viscous, one would most likely have to boil off more of the liquid without burning any of the valuable compounds contained in the vinegar. Low heat is most likely required for such a feat and I can imagine that it is not made on the spot. Something like this may take a bit of thinking and preparation.
The addition of sugar may also successfully create the final product, a viscous sort of liquid to an even more caramelized state (but it WILL be sweet). The humble bottle of balsamic vinegar can subsequently be used to balance the acids of cloyingly sweet desserts. However, when the balsamic vinegar is heated, it seemed that the vinegar loses some of its bite. Chefs can also choose to use wine as a substance to bolster the taste of the vinegar. Subsequent reduction of these kinds of fluids develops the natural sugar formation (caramelization), which perhaps is the reason why reduced vinegars lose a bit of the acidity and gain a hint of sweetness. An addition of citric acid-containing fruits or liquid can re-hash the sour balance of what a true vinegar is without the possibility of acids breaking down while heating. This way, we don’t have to use guar gum or unpronounceable quandaries to create a reduction.
I ended up describing what was the most essential way to reduce a liquid, which is the boiling off of water, in order to leave concentrated solutes behind. Traditional sauce-making may implement a roux, creme fraiche, or butter at the end to smooth out or add body to a particular sauce. The addition of flour works brilliantly (not for celiacs) because we’re essentially adding starch granules (for the case of flour). Similar to something like corn starch, the starch acts as a thickener. A good example of how starch thickens is through the creation of pasta. After we boil pasta to an al dente, the water that we used always has a slight cloudiness or bite to it, similar to stock. This is due to the pasta liberating (leaking) starch molecules (solute…into water). We can’t save them all. It’s the same reason why pasta shouldn’t be rinsed after its cooked. You wash the exiting starch granules off the pasta, and the subsequent sauce that’s put over it has absolutely nothing to cling to. Disaster abounds. In using thickeners, there won’t be a “concentration” of flavor by adding a thickener, simply because you haven’t added any flavor components to the sauce as a whole. Once you start evaporating water, the ratio of flavor components to water increases, and when that increases, the viscosity increases as well. There’s a delicate balance.
Next time you decide to make a vinaigrette, or some sort of sauce, think about the texture, palatability, and ease of ingestion. Nobody like runny sauces or sauces that solidify after the food cools down. Delicate balance, boys and girls.