Pasta al tonno.
Pasta al tonno. Photo by Dan Peretz
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Dan Peretz
Tassos olives. Photo by Dan Peretz

When it comes to Italian cuisine, balsamic vinegar from Modena, in the Emilia-Romagna region, holds a special place of honor. The dark thick liquid is made from the fresh juice of sugar-rich white grapes and aged for years in wood barrels so that it attains its strong and unique flavor.

The perfect balance between tartness and pleasant sweetness makes it a regular accompaniment to many Italian dishes. Authentic vinegar from Modena is still made by hand by traditional methods and is quite pricey. The wine vinegar commonly sold in supermarkets, usually made from red grapes, with the addition of sugar or caramel, has not undergone any aging process and is of much inferior quality.

In many Italian antipasti dishes, reduced balsamic vinegar is used as a glaze to bring out the flavors of the dish and for decoration. In Italy, you can find plastic bottles of reduced balsamic vinegar in any supermarket; it is especially thick and sweet. In Israel, it is hard to find the reduced variety on sale, but it can be easily prepared at home ‏(see box‏), even from relatively low-quality balsamic vinegar.

Reduced balsamic vinegar, basic recipe

As mentioned above, it’s a good idea to prepare the balsamic glaze at home, to achieve a very high quality. In a small pot, mix 1 1/2 cups balsamic vinegar with 1/2 cups brown sugar and simmer over a low flame until the liquid is reduced by half. While it is simmering, additional flavors may be added, such as rose petals, rosemary or lemon peel. The reduced vinegar will keep in a sealed bottle for a long time.

Carrot and zucchini carpaccio

Italians like to eat many vegetables uncooked. Zucchini, eggplant or pumpkin may be sliced very thinly and sprinkled with salt or lemon and a dash of reduced balsamic vinegar to bring out the flavor. The real flavor of the vegetable is highlighted, whetting one’s appetite for the next course − which is pasta, naturally.

Ingredients:
4 carrots, rinsed and peeled
2 dark green zucchini
1/2 cup pine nuts
4-5 tbsp. reduced balsamic vinegar
‏(see basic recipe‏)
sea salt

Directions:

Coarsely grate the carrots and zucchini; transfer to a bowl. For a more elegant look, the vegetables may be sliced in very thin rounds. Season with a little salt, mix and refrigerate for an hour. Toast the pine nuts on a hot skillet without oil for a few minutes, until they brown. Turn off the heat and set aside to cool.

Place the vegetable mixture in the center of a flat serving platter, scatter the toasted pine nuts on top and pour over the reduced balsamic vinegar.

Onions and tuna in balsamic vinegar

A surprising antipasto with a sharp, sweet and spicy taste. Serve with fresh bread or warm foccacia.

Ingredients:
2 onions
3-4 tbsp. reduced balsamic vinegar ‏
(see basic recipe‏)
3 tbsp. demerara sugar
1 hot green pepper
130-150 gr. good-quality canned tuna
1 tbsp. capers
3 tbsp. olive oil

Directions:

Slice the onions in very thin rings. Transfer to a bowl; pour the reduced balsamic vinegar over. Stir so that the onion is coated, and refrigerate for at least one hour or overnight. Slice the hot green pepper into thin rings. Place the sugar in a skillet and heat over a low flame for two or three minutes until the sugar dissolves and turns a caramel color. Add the pepper rings to the caramel and turn off the heat. With tongs, carefully remove the caramel-coated peppers and place them on a sheet of baking paper, spaced slightly apart, until the caramel cools and hardens.

Arrange the vinegar-marinated onions on a serving dish in a single layer. Spread the tuna and capers on top and then pour the olive oil over. Garnish with the sweet and spicy peppers to taste, and serve with a semi-sweet white wine.

Pasta al tonno

Cold pasta is an ideal lunch dish on a hot summer day. The delicate smoked flavor of the tuna and the fresh herbs make for a simple and delicious combination. Buy good-quality local or imported smoked tuna fillets. They should be more firm and less crumbly than regular canned tuna.

Ingredients:
1 pkg. ‏(500 gr.‏) curly elicoidali pasta or fusilli
100 gr. pitted black tassos olives
1 heaping tbsp. capers
12 fresh basil leaves
1 tbsp. fresh oregano leaves
fresh thyme leaves
1 jar ‏(130-150 gr.‏) smoked,
preserved tuna fillets
1/4 cup ‏(60 ml.‏) olive oil
sea salt
coarsely ground black pepper

Directions:
Prepare the pasta according to the instructions. Drain and rinse under cold water and set aside to cool. Place the olives, capers, basil, oregano and thyme on a cutting board and coarsely chop. Add the olive and herb mixture to the cold pasta. Crumble the smoked tuna over the mixture; season with a little salt ‏(most of the saltiness comes from the olives‏), coarsely ground black pepper and olive oil. Toss and serve after the antipasti, with cold white wine and some tomato slices.

All recipes are provided by Elena Zimbalista and are for four to six servings.