I love finding new ingredients to use in my cooking and baking. I like the challenge of finding new and perhaps different ways of using ingredients too. And unlike many folks who want to make sure that they are making tried and true recipes when they host a dinner party, having people over for dinner is a great excuse for me to experiment. Very rarely will I ever before have made any of the dishes that I serve to guests. It’s all part of the fun!
My new ingredient Find of the Week is flavored balsamic vinegars. I was given a sample of a Vanilla Orange Aged Balsamic as I was enjoying lunch al fresco at The Village Grill in Lafayette Village in North Raleigh. Greg, one of the owners of the relatively new The Olive Wagon, was strolling around the courtyard offering tastes to diners or folks who were just wandering from shop to shop.
I don’t really know what I was expecting, but I wasn’t expecting to fall so madly in love with this stuff. My Dining Companion, the lovely Anne from Pintesting, fell in love too. She and her husband had to skedaddle after lunch, but naturally, I a made a bee line to the store where I met Whitney, Greg’s business partner and wife. The Olive Wagon is a stand alone shop, but I know there are similar stores and possibly even chains as well. They offer a wide variety of flavored aged balsamics and flavored olive oils as well as a standard aged balsamic and several varietal olive oil offerings. And the best part? You can taste it all before you buy!
Of course, I drank my weight in flavored balsamics and then tasted each of the five or six varietal olive oils that they had on hand. I can’t say that I adored every single balsamic flavor. I wasn’t really a fan of the white balsamic with coconut and lime or of the traditional balsamic with cinnamon and pear. But I really enjoyed the vast majority of all the flavors I tasted. For example, they sell a chocolate raspberry balsamic. I was a bit dubious about trying it, honestly, but the flavors worked beautifully together. I could taste balsamic, chocolate and raspberry equally–a nicely balanced blend. Other standouts were the Fig, Black Currant and the Pomegranate. But I couldn’t stay away from the Vanilla Orange. So I bought a bottle.
I ended up using it in every course of our meal. I even told Cindy and Bob (our friends and owners of my favorite spice store Savory Spice Shop in Raleigh) that their meal was being brought to them by the flavor Orange.
For the first course, we had asparagus that I cooked under the broiler with a bit of olive oil, salt, pepper and minced garlic. After I pulled it out of the oven, I tossed it with some orange zest and little cubes of herbed goat cheese. Then we pretty much just ate it with our fingers, dipping the spears into the flavored balsamic.
I made an orange cheesecake tart very similar to the Blackberry Swirl Cheesecake Tart I made a few weeks ago, flavoring a starch thickened orange “curd” (no egg) layer with a bit of the balsamic as well. And the cherry sauce. Because, why not?
But my favorite use, by far, was using it in the lamb sauce for the gnocchi we had for our main course. I know these types of condiments are not really supposed to be incorporated into dishes–they are supposed to stand on their own, as a dip or a drizzle. But rules are made to be broken, and I enjoy breaking the rules. I probably only added 1-2 tablespoons of the vanilla orange balsamic to the ragout, but it really brought an added layer of flavor to the dish.
The vodka didn’t hurt, either. There are so many great alcohol-soluble flavors in tomatoes that it seems a shame to just leave them locked away when it’s so easy to add a healthy glug or three of wine or vodka. In this case, there was so much else going on in the sauce, I didn’t want to muddy the waters with the additional flavor that wine would bring, so I went with a neutral (and cheap) vodka.
This sauce was completely perfect with the gnocchi, which we ordered from Carolina Grown. And we had thick slices of my Herb Bread with Lemon and Rosemary Infused Olive Oil to soak up the wonderful sauce! I will say that it might not be seasonal for summer as it was pretty rich and hearty, but wow was it good! And now I can make more when it gets cold. Yay!
As is usual for me, this dish is more about the technique than the actual ingredient list. I didn’t write anything down, and I added ingredients to taste. Please feel free to do the same. If you don’t like lamb, leave it out, or use ground beef or even turkey. If you want to make a vegetarian version, I’d recommend that you cut back on the orange zest just a bit as the fattiness from the lamb mellowed what was initially a very orange-forward sauce. And do let this chill overnight and then reheat–the flavors need a chance to get to know each other.
- 1 pound ground lamb
- salt and pepper, to taste
- 2 Tablespoons olive oil
- ½ large onion, medium dice
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 small shallots, minced
- ¼ cup olive oil
- leaves from a 3″ sprig of rosemary
- 2 Tablespoons tomato powder from Savory Spice Shop (or tomato paste)
- 1 28-oz can stewed tomatoes
- kosher salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
- Mixed tomatoes from your neighbor’s garden. Or your own garden. I think I had 5 medium sized (mixture of red and yellow) and a handful of small yellow pear tomatoes, chopped (See Notes)
- 1 teaspoon good quality Italian herb seasoning
- zest from ½ orange (scale back a bit if you’re using a less fatty meat than lamb)
- 1-2 Tablespoons Vanilla Orange Balsamic (or sub plain balsamic and maybe a drop or two of orange oil)
- ¼ cup vodka (plus another ¼ cup for reheating)
- In a large skillet, brown the ground lamb, salt and pepper in 2 Tablespoons of olive oil, breaking it apart well so there are no huge big lamby clumps.
- Set aside (or even refrigerate)
- Heat a Dutch oven over medium heat until hot.
- Add the ¼ cup olive oil and heat until it shimmers.
- Add the onion, garlic and shallot and let sizzle until the garlic is a lovely golden brown color.
- Add in the can of tomatoes as well as the chopped fresh tomatoes (you can use all canned or all fresh, depending upon the season), Italian herbs, zest, balsamic and the vodka.
- Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to a slow simmer, cover and let simmer away for an hour or so.
- Remove the lid and let reduce and concentrate for another hour or so.
- Run the sauce through a food mill using the medium die or puree with an immersion blender or regular blender.
- Return the tomato sauce back to the pot, stir in the lamb and let simmer for another 30 minutes or so.
- Refrigerate overnight.
- To reheat for serving, bring the sauce and another ¼ cup vodka slowly up to a boil temperature and let simmer to burn off most of the harsh alcohol.
- Serve over gnocchi or your favorite pasta.
Please keep in mind that this is how I made _my_ sauce on this particular day. Don’t feel constrained by this ingredient list.
I finished the meal by sprinkling on a bit of Citrus Fennel Pollen Sea Salt. And now I will use an Obnoxious Foodie Word: Sublime!
If you’re not sure how to correctly marry your pasta with the sauce, here’s my post on How to Finish Pasta.