Thursday, July 28, 2011

Oil and Vinegar Infusions

Read on to see how our newest contributer Cara Valla, sous chef at San Francisco's Chiaroscurro, is ready to throw a dinner party any night of the week:

If you're busy like I am, keeping your fridge constantly well-stocked is near impossible. When guests drop by unannounced, my secret for entertaining is a pantry of unperishables; I always have what I need to whip up something special at a moment's notice.

The first two places I turn to for some amped up flavor are oils and vinegars. Flavored condiments are easier to come by these days, but they're often pricey. Give some infusions a try yourself - the delicious flavors will be almost as sweet as the bragging rights.

The Basics:

When choosing the base oil, you want a mild oil - virgin olive oil is a popular choice. There are two ways to infuse flavor into oil - with heat or with time. Oil can be heated, infused, cooled and enjoyed within an hour - but it may alter the flavor of the aromatics slightly. In the case of a lemon oil, a cold infusion may take a few days, but in my opinion it'll have more depth of flavor and lemony brightness. It's up to you! You can experiment with different herbs - usually only a few sprigs per bottle will do the trick - but keep in mind that you don't want to use anything with a high water content to flavor the oil if you plan on cooking with it; it'll make the oil spit as it heats.

Vinegar takes a longer time to absorb flavor, but it is soooo worth the wait. I recommend using a white balsamic, apple cider or champagne vinegar as the base - white vinegar tends to be too harsh. The general ratio of vinegar to herbs is 2:1, but can be altered to taste.
Cold-Infused Lemon Oil

4 cups Virgin Olive Oil
4 Lemons

Peel each lemon carefully, removing as little pith as possible with the skin. Discard the lemons (or save them for some lemonade!). Add the lemon skins to the oil, seal the container, refrigerate, and allow the flavor to infuse for 3 days. It really is that simple!

Hot-Infused Garlic Oil

4 cups Virgin Olive Oil
8 whole peeled Garlic Cloves

Add ingredients to a saucepan and heat very very slowly until the garlic just barely starts to bubble around the edges. Remove from heat and cool to room temperature. Now you have aromatic oil AND delicious roasted garlic. Amazing.

PLEASE NOTE: Garlic can harbor C. botulinum - so be sure to consume your garlic oil within 10 days, or freeze it and use it at a later date.

Cold-Infused Strawberry-Basil Vinegar

1 1/2 cups Strawberries, stemmed
1/2 cup Basil Leaves
peel of one Lemon - pith removed
4 cups White Balsamic Vinegar - at least 5% acidity, to keep fruit from spoiling
1/4 cup Sugar

Wash the strawberries, rip the basil leaves by hand, and gently mash together in a large, clean and dry container. Add the lemon peel. Pour cold vinegar over the mixture, cover and store in a cool, dark place for one week, shaking it every few days.

After one week, strain out the fruit and reserve the vinegar in a saucepan. Add sugar and simmer the vinegar for 3 minutes, but do NOT let it boil. If any foam comes to the top, skim it off with a spoon.

Let the vinegar cool to room temperature, bottle and enjoy!

Hot-Infused Tarragon Shallot Vinegar 

2 shallots sliced thinly
2 sprigs of tarragon
1 tsp. black peppercorns
1 bay leaf
2cups Champagne vinegar

Simply add your herbs to a clean and dry container, heat the vinegar to nearly boiling (190degrees if you have a thermometer), pour on top of the herbs, seal and let cool to room temperature. Place in the fridge and watch lovingly as flavors intermingle for 2-3 weeks. When you're satisfied with the flavor, strain out the aromatics, pour the vinegar into a shiny new container, and add a few decorative aromatics to the bottle for presentation.

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