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Rice wine vinegar: Adds zip to grilled fish, brothy stews and more
(CNN) -- Asian cuisine has explored every possible use of rice over the centuries, including its potential as a seasoning. A sweet and mellow vinegar made from rice wine is one such discovery -- and chefs with all types of culinary specialties are recognizing its potential.
Balsamic vinegars grabbed center stage in the '90s, thanks to the popularity of Mediterranean foods. But cookbook author Elizabeth Simon says rice vinegar can sometimes offer greater subtlety and freshness, and favors making it a kitchen staple.
The Asian vinegar flavors recipes throughout the "BowlFood Cookbook," which Simon co-authored with Lynne Aronson, chef of Lola in New York City. It enhances the herb flavor of their Cilantro Vinaigrette. Simon and Aronson call this recipe "a light tribute to summer," and recommend it for drizzling over veggies or marinating fish.
"Rice wine vinegar is wonderful to use instead of a balsamic vinegar in a vinaigrette," says Simon.
A fresh take on short ribs
Rice vinegar can also underscore hearty meat dishes. It's an integral part of the Stewed Short Ribs recipe in the "BowlFood Cookbook."
"You can use it also in a brothy stew to make it a little bit more pungent and brighten the flavor," says Simon.
Freelance food writer, historian and former chef Ruth Adams Bronz agrees. She likes to use rice vinegar as a substitute for regular vinegar in the traditional barbecue recipes of North and South Carolina.
"If you want a great taste for spareribs," Bronz says, "it is one of the best ones you can use."
For those on restricted diets, this seasoning can really boost flavor without adding unnecessary fat or sugar, she adds. "Because rice vinegar is light and sweet, there is often no need to add sugar," says Bronz.
As Asian cuisine graces tabletops from trendy bistros to suburban homes, specialty ingredients that make a dish genuine are drawing those who like to cook as well as those who like to eat.
"Americans are always striving to find the authentic ingredient," Bronz explains. "It used to be that we would substitute ingredients and make due, but it matters to people now. They want the authentic taste, and rice wine vinegar is in specialty shops and on grocery shelves and they can get it."
Rice wine vinegar has other benefits besides taste. "It is good for you," Bronz says.
From her days as a chef in New England, she remembers some customers using it as a digestif -- adding a couple of teaspoons of it to cider and drinking the concoction once a day. While Bronz says some people swear by this tonic for longevity and good health, she prefers to take her rice vinegar in a classic stir fry.
Shirley Chang, a chef at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, makes a distinction between Japanese rice vinegar and Chinese rice vinegar, both of which add dimension to her cooking.
"Chinese rice vinegar is very dark, like a soy sauce, while Japanese rice vinegar has a lighter color and is sweeter. There is a big difference, and both have been around forever in Asian cooking," she explains.
Chang says a growing taste for lighter cooking has heightened interest in seasonings like ginger and garlic that spice up a dish without adding unwanted calories. In fact, Asian vinegars often take the place of oils entirely in many of her recipes.
"Just combine your favorite vegetables with ginger, soy sauce and garlic to taste," she says, "then add a tablespoon of rice vinegar to bring out a sweeter, lighter taste."
To warm up winter meals -- go bowling!
Ruth Adams Bronz
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