The local farmer’s market is beginning to fill to the brim with spring’s fresh bounty – tender asparagus, baby peas, young lettuces and my favorite – tiny juicy sweet strawberries. Those tender joyously red berries never fail to put a smile on my face. At the market this morning, the moment I saw their little sweet faces staring up at me, my mind turned to the fact that we are featuring the region of Emilia-Romagna on our blog this month. What better to pair with the tender sweetness of strawberries than the rich tartness of Italy’s own elixir, balsamic vinegar. Emilia-Romagna is the ancient birthplace of this luxurious vinegar, having been credited with medicinal properties since the Middle Ages. The real stuff, Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena, is produced via a highly regulated aging process; with barrels being held for a minimum of 12 years but some exceeding 25 years or more. I have only once sampled a 25 year old balsamic and it was one of those food moments to be remembered forever. Time practically stood still as the delightful nectar evolved into a flavor symphony of perfectly balanced sweet and tart.
Unfortunately, the inexpensively commercially produced variety that we find on our market shelves holds no comparison to the real deal. But if this is all you have available, all hope is not lost. Simply dump the entire bottle into a small heavy saucepan. Heat over medium low heat maintaining a slow steady simmer. Slowly reduce the vinegar until it starts to appear thick and syrupy – about 20 minutes or so. Once it gets to this point, watch it closely and allow it to continue to simmer. You can vary the thickness by simmering longer until it coats the back of a spoon, producing a thicker syrup. It should reduce by about 1/2 to 1/3 in volume. You can then pour this delightful reduction into a small glass container for use whenever you need it. I keep a jar in my fridge at all times and I just pop it in the microwave for a few seconds to thin a bit and pour, drizzle or spoon it on vegetables, fruit, ice cream – you name it. Toss it with fresh strawberries as I have done here and add a sprinkle of fresh ground pepper and a splash of your favorite spirit and serve. You could also serve over ice cream or with a dollop of whipped mascarpone on top. Enjoy!
Strawberries with Balsamic and Black Pepper
2 pints of strawberries, cleaned, hulled and quartered
1 tablespoon sugar
4 tablespoons good quality balsamic vinegar
Freshly ground black pepper
A few sprigs of fresh mint
Splash of white wine or brandy or spirit of your choice (optional)
Toss the strawberries with the sugar and vinegar. Season with freshly ground black pepper to taste. Garnish with a few mint leaves. Splash with a little white wine or brandy. Serve!