Balsamic vinegar holds a place of high regard in our kitchen and is a condiment that has been associated with a myriad of superstitions, legends and politics. In Medieval times balsamic vinegar was valued for its healing properties. The name is a derivation of the word balm which in turn is derived from balsamum, a Latin term that refers to an aromatic resin that acts as a reliever or healer with soothing properties. Balsamic vinegar from Modena and Reggio, Italy, are the only true balsamic vinegars in the world, or, in Italian, Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale. When purchasing a balsamic vinegar don’t make the mistake of selecting a bottle based on its price. True, authentic balsamic vinegar is expensive, but of greater importance is the region of origination as well as the method by which it is bottled. If you are in the market for an authentically made artisan balsamic look for the code API MO, an indicator that the vinegar was made in Modena, or API RE which indicates the Reggio province. These vinegars have been aged for a minimum of twelve years and each drop has been decanted and aged through a minimum of three barrels. Even the bottles in which the vinegar will be bottled and stored have very strict standards. Most have a large glass globe with a narrow neck, capped with a cork. The bottles are then labeled with one of three different colored labels which indicate the quality of the artisan vinegar. The most highly coveted, indicating superior quality, is the gold label. The most inexpensive gold labeled bottle costs about $50 with the most expensive well over $100. Since these vinegars are used sparingly a bottle should be expected to last a number of years and contain a vinegar that has been aged well over 100 years. These traditionally made vinegars will have a sable or brown-black color. When the bottle is tipped the vinegar will leave a thin trace of color down the side of the glass. The taste? Smooth and full-bodied, much like that of an aged brandy and absent of a strong acidic taste.
Artisan-made balsamic is incomparable. In old times this vinegar wasn’t made available to the general public, being reserved for and served to the royal houses in Italy. As few as twenty-five years ago it remained unavailable for purchase in stores and was only shared among friends and relatives and given as gifts. Today tiny casks are given to new brides in the regions of Modena and Reggio. The taste of an artisan-made balsamic is so incredibly fine that many Italians prefer to sip it as an after dinner liqueur. Because of it’s fine taste it is best to not heat this vinegar as heating will cause it to lose some of the wonderful properties of its taste. Instead, these flavorful artisan vinegars should be used on fresh ingredients, such as salads, vegetables or fresh fruits… or served with meats that have already been cooked.
There are three types of balsamic vinegars, those made in Modena and Reggio by the ancient artisan method, commercial brands from outside Modena and Reggio and the imitations which tend to be of lesser quality and should be avoided as the true taste of an artisan balsamic simply cannot be imitated. A commercial brand is acceptable and suitable for culinary creations and it is these which are most often available in the United States. They tend to be slightly more acidic than artisan produced vinegars but remain a fine choice. They can be drizzled on baked potatoes or sprinkled over steamed or grilled vegetables. A favorite of ours is a dash or two of balsamic vinegar and a fruity olive oil drizzled over grilled asparagus… delicious!
For a recent dinner we coupled the flavors of our favorite commercial balsamic vinegar with fresh rosemary, garlic, pancetta and creme fraiche to turn a simple fryer into a tasty, elegant… and quick… evening meal! Served with sauteed snap peas and baby shiitake mushrooms we dined on a flavorful and very delicious Oven Roasted Balsamic Rosemary Chicken with Pancetta. Leftovers, we discovered, were equally as good. The chicken was gently reheated in the microwave, as was the rich sauce. Served with a simple saute of collard greens and white onion on the second occasion we were extremely pleased to be able to enjoy this palate pleasing dish… twice!
Oven Roasted Balsamic Rosemary Chicken with Pancetta
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Rinse and pat dry with paper towels:
one 3-1/2 lb fryer
Chef’s Note: A small young fryer is best for this dish since the smaller breast will cook in the same time frame as the legs and thighs, with all parts succulent and juicy at the completion of roasting.
Remove the wishbone with a sharp knife and cut the chicken in half, removing the backbone. In addition, cut the tips from each wing and discard. Mince finely and set aside:
1 -2 stripped sprigs fresh rosemary
Smash with the side of a chef’s knife then finely mince:
4 – 5 whole peeled garlic cloves
To the minced garlic add:
1/2 tsp of the reserved minced rosemary
Continue to smash, chop and work them together to incorporate the flavors and create a paste-like mixture:
Gently lift the skin from the breasts and thighs with your fingertips to create pockets and insert:
four 1/8-inch thick slices pancetta, 1 on each breast half and 1 covering each thigh
Brush the pancetta with a light coating of:
extra virgin olive oil
Divide the garlic and rosemary mixture into four portions, spreading it evenly over each slice of pancetta:
Pull the skin back over the pockets to close them:
Brush the chicken with:
1 T unsalted butter, melted
Season with light sprinklings of:
salt, freshly ground black pepper and paprika
Rub the seasonings into the skin with your fingertips and place the seasoned fryer on a rack in a shallow baking pan:
To the bottom of the roasting pan add:
1 C dry white wine
1/2 C balsamic vinegar
2 oz brandy
1 whole sprig fresh rosemary
2 whole cloves peeled garlic, smashed
Place in the preheated 375 degree oven and roast for 35 – 40 minutes. Check for doneness with an internal temp thermometer which should read 155 – 160 degrees.
Lift the rack from the pan and set aside on a cutting board, tented with foil. Transfer the pan juices, removing the rosemary sprig and garlic cloves, to a saucepan, using a spatula to capture the remaining drops:
Reduce the juices over moderately high heat and, when thickened, add:
1/2 C creme fraiche
Continue cooking and whisk until the mixture takes on a sauce consistency:
Season to taste, if necessary, with:
salt and freshly ground black pepper
Divide each chicken half into two portions, breast and wing… leg and thigh. Plate for service and generously nap each quarter with the rich, flavorful sauce. Serve with an al dente steamed or sauteed vegetable… or your favorite mixed greens. Simplicity and elegance at its best… Bon Appetit!
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