As a supporter of the Mediterranean diet (which has a strong body of evidence showing the positive impact on health), a lecturer on the Blue Zones (regions of the globe with the best health metrics-one of which is in Italy), and a long time member of Slow Food (an international nonprofit organization founded in Rome to counteract fast food and fast life), it was a special treat to visit Italy this summer. This is my favorite country in Europe due to the richness of the history, the beauty of the land, the warmth of the people and of course, the delectable taste of the food.
While in Chianti, I had a wonderful visit to an organic farm called Tenuta Casanova. Here, I sampled typical Tuscan cuisine while overlooking the vineyards and distant countryside and learned about the production of their wine and balsamic vinegar (BV). While I have been on wine tastings before, I knew nothing about balsamic vinegar, the process of production and why a good quality product is worth the investment.
Balsamic vinegar has been around since ancient times and offers a host of potential health benefits. In addition to nutrients such as iron, calcium, potassium, manganese, phosphorus and magnesium, BV contains a powerful antioxidant called Resveratrol. This helps protect the plant from environmental stresses but also protects the human body when ingested (mother nature is so clever!). This has been shown to be associated with reducing inflammation, stabilizing blood cholesterol, reducing insulin resistance (which is a precursor to diabetes), limiting growth of abnormal cancer cells by triggering cell death, reducing atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), aiding digestion by stimulating the enzyme pepsin and may be protective for Alzheimers and other neurodegenerative diseases. Balsamic vinegar has a low glycemic index so it does not raise blood sugar as quickly as refined sugar or starches although it does contain sugar so watch your amounts if you are diabetic or sugar sensitive.
The most famous fine balsamic vinegar is prepared in the hills of Modena, Italy, which has a deep, sweet flavor. Although we didn't make it to Modena, the BV from Chianti was fantastic! The balsamic vinegar is made from reduced grape must (pressed grapes) and a little mother vinegar (older balsamic vinegar) meticulously aged in successively smaller wooden barrels. The longer the fermenting process, the finer the quality, the thicker the consistency and the sweeter the taste. The 25 year old BV that I tasted was sweet enough to be served as a topping for vanilla ice cream! But BEWARE of commercially processed balsamic vinegars found in the supermarket that contain caramel coloring, sweeteners, and thickeners to imitate the aging process.
You can find a good quality aged balsamic vinegar at a reasonable price without added flavors, caramels, or preservatives at markets, health food stores and online sites. I have also been able to find nice products at my local farmers market and at TJ Maxx/Home Goods.
Below are six KID APPROVED RECIPES which use balsamic vinegar to create foods my whole family loves. Check them out and ENJOY!!
1. TOMATO, MOZZARELLA, BASIL
-Slice up vine ripened tomatoes (thick enough to hold) and arrange on a plate
-Slice up mozzarella cheese (a little thinner than the tomato) and place on each.
-Put one basil leaf on top of each piece of cheese (some people shred the basil)
-Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil and aged balsamic vinegar (I pour first onto a spoon and drizzle from there so I have more control. About the same amount of oil and vinegar to your liking)
Serve immediately or chill first. ENJOY!!
2. BALSAMIC DRESSING
-1/3 cup balsamic vinegar
-2/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
-3 cloves crushed garlic
-1 to 2 teaspoons of maple syrup
-salt and pepper to taste.
Combine all and pour over greens.
3. POPPYSEED DRESSING IN STRAWBERRY SPINACH SALAD
This one is a huge hit at parties. I adapted it from a recipe I found online years ago but unfortunately, do not know the website to give credit.
-2 T poppy seeds
-2 or 3 scallions chopped
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1 lb baby spinach
1 pint sliced strawberries
1/2 cup almond slivers
4. BALSAMIC DRIZZLED ON VANILLA ICE CREAM (served at Tenuta Casanova Farm)
Be sure to get the sweet, aged balsamic vinegar and drizzle lightly. This was a huge surprise to all of us! It's absolutely delicious and a great alternative to hot fudge. Here is a photo from Italy and we have since re-created this at home to the delight of my children.
5. TOMATO, RED ONION, BASIL SALAD
Told to me by my dear friend, Kate Brennan.
-3 ripe tomatoes on the vine (or whatever type you like best)
-1/2 sliced red onion
-3 TBS chopped, fresh basil
-2 TBS extra virgin olive oil
-1 to 2 TBS balsamic vinegar
-salt and pepper to taste (optional)
-optional, add chopped cucumbers and/or cubed mozzarella cheese
Mix all together and chill.
6. BALSAMIC ROASTED BEET, FENNEL AND TANGERINE SALAD (Adapted from "The Spectrum" by Dr. Dean Ornish page 272--a great book!) This one is more work than the other recipes but very original and tasty.
-1 pound beets (washed, peeled and cut into quarters-I often cut even smaller)
-2 fennel bulbs cut into eights (I had to watch a youtube video on how to do this)
-1/4 cup balsamic vinegar, plus a little extra for drizzling
-3 tangerines, separate sections and cut in half (he calls for oranges, I like these better)
-1/4 cup crumbled goat cheese (this is optional but to me, makes the salad)
Preheat oven to 375. Book says toss beets with the balsamic vinegar and roast for 25-30 minutes. I cook them separately since the fennel seems to cook faster (I use 2 TBS balsamic vinegar with each and I cover both with foil. I take the fennel out 5-10 minutes earlier). Let them cool. Then toss with the tangerines and drizzle a little more balsamic. I add the goat cheese just before serving. You can chill-this is wonderful the next day as well. While one of my children loves this, the other does not. I think it's fabulous.
Medscape General Medicine: "Vinegar-Medicinal Uses and Antiglycemic Effects" http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1785201/
Journal of Nutritional Science and Vitaminology: "Inhibitory Effects of Balsamic Vinegar on LCL Oxidation and Lipid
Accumulation in THP-1 Macrophages"
Resveratrol, a neuroprotective supplement for Alzheimer's disease.