Don't be a sour puss

For centuries, we have used vinegar to cook and prepare food. Here, Mark Hix reveals some new ways with 'sour wine'
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Indy Lifestyle Online

It's because of that vinegar book you see advertised in the Sunday supplements. Everyone now seems to be raving about how good apple vinegar is for you - it's a great source of potassium which promotes healthy cells and tissues, and helps fight off unwanted bacteria. Plus you can clean almost anything with vinegar - stainless steel, marble, leather, hard-water scale deposits. Of course it inspired me to think about cooking with vinegar and similar condiments that fill up the cupboards.

It's because of that vinegar book you see advertised in the Sunday supplements. Everyone now seems to be raving about how good apple vinegar is for you - it's a great source of potassium which promotes healthy cells and tissues, and helps fight off unwanted bacteria. Plus you can clean almost anything with vinegar - stainless steel, marble, leather, hard-water scale deposits. Of course it inspired me to think about cooking with vinegar and similar condiments that fill up the cupboards.

Vinegar's been around for thousands of years, before anyone thought of using it for salad dressing or descaling kettles. In the 5th century BC Hippocrates recommended its medicinal powers. It was probably discovered by accident as vinegar is produced naturally from wine and other alcoholic and fruit drinks that are exposed to the air and turn sour. You can imagine before corks came into use, when wine casks were sealed with clay which easily cracked to expose the contents to air, there must have been a lot of vinegar knocking around. The word comes from the French vin aigre, meaning sour wine. When salt was a luxury vinegar was used for sterilising, and preserving vegetables and other foods.

Vinegar can be made not just from wine and cider, but from anything with a sugar content, whether from fruit or grain. Malt vinegar comes from barley; the Chinese use rice vinegar. Now there's every sort of vinegar, some specifying the grape variety, plus herb and spice flavoured ones, on hand for salad dressing. Everyone has their own little vinaigrette recipe and it doesn't really need accurate measures, just good quality ingredients. Depending on the acidity, three or four parts of oil to one of vinegar is a rough guide. To vary the taste try some of the great vinegars around now. From the luxurious Forum sherry vinegars from Spain to the unfiltered English cider vinegar from B J & S D Topp in the New Forest which sells in some farmers' markets.

Not only is there an array of vinegars, other less common but similar condiments produced from wine and fruit can be put to similar uses. Verjus or verjuice as it is spelt in some parts of the world is as it says, green juice. It can be made from crab apples and green grapes and other unripe fruit. In medieval cooking it was commonly used but by the 19th century seemed to disappear. Lemon juice and vinegar seemed to take its place as they were readily available. In Iran its called abghooreh and made from tiny green grapes and still widely used in all types of dishes.

When the Australian chef and verjuice producer Maggie Beer published her book, Cooking with Verjuice, a couple of years ago there was a flurry of interest in it. Harvey Nichols stocks her own, and Sainsbury's has verjuice on its special selection shelves. If you can get your hands on it, verjuice can be used successfully in sauces as an alternative to wine without the boozy effect. That's probably why it's widely used in countries where alcohol is banned.

Another useful cooking juice is mosto, which is basically a juice extracted from the grapes before fermentation and has a similar appearance to balsamico, without the acidity. In Puglia it's a common drink. I suppose we should drink it here in January when we make ridiculous New Year's resolutions.

Grilled trevisiano with smoked mozzarella and mosto

Serves 4

The radicchio family members like the treviso are not just for making salads look pretty. When cooked they take on a new flavour and make great starters or accompaniments for grilled meat and fish. If you can't find smoked mozzarella, then there is a cheese called scarmorza which is a plastic-like curd cheese. If both fail then mozzarella will be fine, but do buy a good one - there are lots of imitations around. You can find mosto in Italian delis or specialist shops.

1-2 heads of treviso, trevisiano or radicchio
60ml olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
250g smoked mozzarella
60ml mosto

Cut the treviso or radicchio into quarters, leaving the root on. Heat the olive oil in a heavy-based frying pan and gently cook the treviso, turning it after a few minutes until it begins to soften. Season with salt and pepper and cover the pan with a lid or foil to create steam to soften it. Cook for another 3-4 minutes then remove from the heat and leave to cool. Remove the root from the treviso and arrange the leaves on plates. Mix the mosto with any remaining juices in the pan and spoon over the treviso. Break the mozzarella into pieces and arrange on the treviso.

Skate with shrimps and capers

Serves 4

Skate is quite a rich tasting fish and the vinegary capers match it perfectly. The more expensive capers preserved in salt are useful for sauces like the classic caper sauce for mutton or more delicate meats and fish where you don't want the vinegar to overpower. For this you need the tang of vinegar which goes especially well with skate. You can f

make it without the brown shrimps if you wish as they are quite tricky to get hold of. Skate wings appear bony, but it's actually cartilage. The flesh easily forks away from the "bones" though can even eat them if you want. You could try asking your fishmonger to skin and fillet your skate - though it may surprise him, as it is not normal practice, except in some restaurant kitchens.

4 skate wings, each about 200-250g, skinned and trimmed
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
Plain flour, to dust
Vegetable or corn oil, to fry
150g unsalted butter
65g drained capers, rinsed
Juice of 1 lemon
50g peeled cooked brown shrimp or prawns
1 tbsp chopped parsley

Season the skate wings and lightly flour them. Heat the oil in a heavy-based or non-stick frying pan and cook them for 3-5 minutes on each side, until they are golden. Just before the wings are cooked add about one third of the butter to the pan and continue to fry for about a minute to give them a nice brown colour. When they are done, remove them from the pan and keep warm. If your pan isn't large enough to cook them all at once, brown them two at a time. The first two can be finished off in the oven pre-heated to 200ºC (fan oven 180ºC)/390ºF/gas mark 6) for about 10 minutes - as long as it takes to cook the other two.

Wipe the pan with some kitchen paper (or use a clean pan), add the rest of the butter and heat it gently until it begins to foam. Add the capers, lemon juice, shrimp or prawns and parsley, and remove from the heat.

Put the skate on warm plates and spoon the contents of the pan evenly over the top. Serve with spinach and good buttery mash.

Beetroot and mache salad

Serves 4

Why don't people eat more beetroot? It's delicious and at this time of year our farmers are harvesting fine ruby red roots. I've seen amazing English beetroots in different colours; one white as a turnip, another yellowy orange, and the usual deep red. It's a weird to eat something that looks like a turnip and tastes like a beetroot, but I'm glad farmers are growing more unusual varieties, and urge you to use them. Look for them raw in farmers' markets. This classic mache and beetroot salad with a good robust vinaigrette appears on most smart bistro menus in Paris. If you are wondering what to do with the rabbit fillets in the recipe below, just fry them for a couple of minutes and slice them up into the salad.

120-150g mache (corn salad or lamb's lettuce)
1 beetroot (whatever colour you fancy) weighing about250-300g, peeled

for the vinaigrette

1tbsp good-quality tarragon vinegar
2tsp Dijon mustard
1 clove of garlic, peeled
2tbsp olive oil
2tbsp vegetable or corn oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Shred the raw beetroot as finely as possible, on a mandolin (a shredding/slicing machine) or by hand. If you can't find raw beetroot, cooked will do. To make the vinaigrette put all the ingredients into a clean bottle or jar. Give them a good shake and leave to infuse overnight at room temperature.

To serve, put the mache into a mixing bowl with the beetroot, season with salt and pepper and mix in the vinaigrette to taste.

Rabbit with spring garlic shoots and verjuice

Serves 4

Verjuice has a nice subtle but earthy taste to go with mild game like rabbit or guinea fowl. Now that all those robust-tasting game birds have gone until later in the year it's good to get that gamey flavour in a lighter spring dish with garlic shoots. These look like spring onions; they are unformed garlic before it become bulbous. I find it a bit of a waste of time braising the saddle of farmed or wild rabbits. They make such a delicious salad cooked just pink, with black pudding for example, or add them to the beetroot salad above.

8 wild rabbit back legs
40g flour, plus more for dusting
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Vegetable oil, for frying
1 onion, peeled and roughly chopped
60g thick cut pancetta or streaky bacon, cut into 1cm cubes
80g butter
200ml verjuice
750ml chicken stock
3 tablespoons double cream
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
6 or 7 pieces of wild garlic shoots, trimmed, cleaned and sliced into 1-2cm lozenges

Lightly flour the rabbit legs and season with them salt and pepper. Heat some vegetable oil in a frying pan and lightly brown the rabbit legs on both sides, then drain on some kitchen paper. In a heavy-based saucepan, gently cook the onion and diced pancetta in 60g of the butter until soft. Add 40g of the flour and stir well. Gradually add the verjuice, stirring well to avoid any lumps forming, then add the chicken stock. Bring to the boil, add the rabbit legs and lightly season with a little more salt and pepper. Simmer gently, covered with a lid, for 1Quarter hours, or until the rabbit is tender.

Remove the legs with a slotted spoon and set side. Add the cream to the cooking liquor and continue to simmer until the sauce has thickened. Put the legs back into the sauce with the chopped parsley and bring back to the boil. Meanwhile heat the rest of the butter in a separate pan and gently cook the garlic shoots for 2-3 minutes until soft but not coloured. Serve with some good mashed potato or a selection of spring greens or vegetables.

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