a Kitchen Conversation

Preparing a Pantry: Voilà Vinegar

By: Ted Robinson, Private Chef 

Vinegar was born thousands of years ago in France when a barrel of wine soured. Who could have known back then that that mistake would ultimately lead to one of the most groundbreaking revolutions in cooking.

Vinegar has had many important uses since its accidental discovery. It preserves, pickles, and cures. It has been used in health elixirs and is well known as a household cleaner. It sets dyes in fabric and Easter eggs. But when it came to cooking, vinegar lurked in the shadows of the spotlight. The spotlight that was fixed, for centuries, on butter.

I grew up in classic French kitchens. There were always vinegars on the shelves, but they came down only occasionally. When the vinegar did come down it was used sparingly. There is the classic vinaigrette, three parts oil to one part vinegar. In Béarnaise sauce there’s butter with herbs, fresh tarragon and a splash of vinegar. There’s a little vinegar in that fundamental reduction of wine, herbs, spices and butter titled “white butter,” but known as beurre blanc.

Everything seemed to be finished with butter, butter and a little salt. That defined the classic French Kitchen. Then came the eighties. I was still in a “French Kitchen,” but the kitchen was located in Napa Valley.

The shelves were lined with more vinegars than usual. There were many flavored vinegars and many different balsamic vinegars, some older than I was. Some other balsamics came from small boutique producers just down the road from the restaurant. It was in this kitchen, at this time, that I saw vinegar start to come to the forefront.

Sauces became lighter, almost non-existent, allowing the fresh light flavor of the food to come through. This was the birth of what would come to be know as “California Cuisine,” not to be confused with what the mainstream may consider “California Cuisine.”

That silly food that my French chef would mock, in his mockable French accent.

He’d rant daily, “What tis zis blueberry, gorgonzola, walnut, cilantro, cheelee in one deesh? Zey call zis cooking?!” The California Cuisine I am referring to, uses classic French cooking techniques but finishes the dish so that the flavors of the food take center stage.

Food was no longer being “covered” up by buttery, creamy sauces. Food was brought to life with a little oil, reductions of natural juices and, voilà, vinegar.

Almost due south of us, in Berkeley, California, Alice Waters was quickly becoming the icon of this cuisine at her groundbreaking restaurant, Chez Panisse.

Today it all seems like a lifetime ago. A time when I was not yet aware that I would spend the rest of my lifetime embracing this new direction in cooking — embracing it to the point that shortly after I took over the kitchen at Paradiso, we got the nickname “House of Vinegar.” A sous chef once pointed out to me that he’d been working with me for over two years and had never seen a sauce on any of my menus.

Classic French cooking is not always easy to replicate at home. The cuisine I champion is. With a well-prepared pantry — one with simple fresh ingredients, assorted spices, oils, and a variety of vinegars — a simply prepared home cooked meal can take on a professional chef’s touch.

Vinegar is affordable, readily available, healthy and the bee’s knees when it comes to getting really fresh and refreshing flavors in cooking. Today’s recipe is all about making your own flavored vinegars for your well-prepared pantry.