fter a long weekend out of town I came home to find my section of the refrigerator completely empty. I hadn’t eaten since an airport lunch many hours before but supermarkets were closed. At first I despaired, but then, after poking around my shelves, I found salvation in an unlikely place: condiments.
Salt, pepper, oil and vinegar are the four most basic, and often overlooked, ingredients in any kitchen. Armed with a high quality collection of these, all you need is a piece of bread, and maybe a tomato, to cook up a delicious meal. Just as you’d pay attention to the beef in a Bistecca alla Fiorentina or artichoke ripeness in a Carciofi alla Romana, it’s important to pay attention where your condiments come from to ensure that you get the highest quality.
Olives start as a green fruit, slowly change to a reddish tint when they first begin to ripen, and then turn black when fully mature. Most say the optimal time to harvest olives is at the start of the red-to-black phase, though some Tuscan olives are harvested earlier, when the fruit has yet to turn red, giving the end product a green hue.
Once the olives are harvested, the first step in oil production is slowly grinding the olives (pits and all) into a smooth paste. After this the oil is extracted with a cylindrical device that uses centrifugal force to separate out the oil, rather then the olive presses of old. This oil is called either “non-filtered” or “cold-pressed” and, if bottled here, makes for the best, and most expensive, oil, called extra-virgin.
As a general rule, simple virgin oil will do just fine to cook with. Stick with extra-virgin, ideally cold-pressed, if you’re looking for olive oil to drizzle over vegetables or to use in salad. To be classified as extra virgin the oil must have less than one percent acidity; virgin usually runs from one to two percent while ordinary olive old is more than two percent.
Then there’s vinegar. While olive oil is best in its youth, vinegar only gets better with age.
There are many kinds of vinegar, but to the Italian palate only one kind merits in-depth examination, balsamic vinegar. True balsamic vinegar, aceto balsamico tradizionale, comes only from Modena or Reggio Emilia and is made from a reduction of Trebbiano and Lambrusco grapes. The syrup that results from the reduction is aged for a minimum of 12 years in barrels of seven different kinds of wood including, chestnut, acacia, cherry, oak, mulberry, ash and juniper.
The time spent in contact with these different woods gives vinegar its complex flavor, a balance between the sweet and sour flavors that occur naturally in grape juice. The long aging process causes the liquid to thicken as well.
You can also find balsamic vinegar glaze, crema di aceto balsamic, which is even thicker and richer than vinegar on its own. A single drop of this is enough to complement a crispy crostino with a slice of parmiggiano.
Salt, meanwhile, comes in four different varieties: iodized salt, kosher salt, and sea salt and fleur de sel (fiordisale), each of which has its proper place in the kitchen.
Iodized salt, commonly referred to as table salt, came into being in the 1920s when iodine was added to plain salt to help fight iodine deficiencies, a cause of goiters, and a frequent problem in the United States.
Iodized and kosher salt are collected in similar manners: sending water into salt deposits and then evaporating the mixture until only salt crystals remain. The only difference is that kosher salt is harvested during evaporation, as opposed to waiting for the process to finish, giving individual grains a block-like structure. This form helps the salt to extract blood from meat before it’s consumed, a necessity under strict Jewish law.
Sea salt and fleur de sel both emerge from evaporating seawater and the harvesting of the crystals. Fleur de sel represents only the youngest crystals, those that form first. Since they’re harvested “young,” they maintain a particular sea essence and their taste can vary greatly depending on the water they hail from. In Italy, the best fleur de sel is often considered to come from Trapani in Sicily.
Of these varieties, iodized salt has the most powerfully salty flavor and is best used sparingly to salt dishes. Kosher salt or sea salt are ideal for salting pasta water and fleur de sel is best consumed raw. The large crystals add an interesting crunch to a salad.
On to pepper. White, green and black peppers all come from the same plant, though you might not think so. The pepper plant is naturally green, and maintaining that color in peppercorns means treating the seeds before drying them out. If untreated, peppercorns turn black during the drying process. When peppercorns are peeled, either black or green, the resulting seed is white, giving us white pepper.
There is no scientific proof to determined which is spicier than the other, but I think black and green have a bit more bite than white.
My solution to the empty fridge conundrum involved some slightly stale bread, a tomato snagged from my roommate, and all four of the condiments described above that turned into some bruschette covered with healthy spoonfuls of the chunky tomato sauce.
Ingredients (serves 1)
- 4 slices from a thick loaf of bread.
- 1 large tomato.
- 2 tbsp olive oil.
- 1 tbsp balsamic vinegar.
- Salt and pepper.
- 2 garlic cloves.
- Heat the oven to 175 Celsius (350 Fahrenheit).
- Halve garlic cloves and rub on bread slices.
- Put bread in oven for 10-15 minutes, until just starting to brown.
- Chop tomato and toss in small bowl with oil, vinegar, salt and pepper.
- Heap tomato sauce on top of bread slices and eat immediately.
To add a bit more sustenance try adding tuna and red onions to the sauce and sprinkling with a little parsley.