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Vinegar once was a mostly salad-only condiment. Mixed with a little oil, it made an easy dressing with few calories. But chefs are now experimenting with all types of vinegars, adding zest to dishes without overpowering other flavors.

"They're not too overwhelming but really add an interesting boost to sauces and other foods," said Chattanooga chef and restaurateur Virginia Cofer.

Jeannie Milewski, executive director of the Atlanta-based Vinegar Institute, said chefs and home cooks are using vinegars now more than ever to add dimension to their foods. In fact, the website reports that the most recent figures from The Nielsen Co. reveal that vinegar sales were up 1.6 percent in 2006, with specialty vinegars leading the way.

The study focused on core users, described as cooks purchasing vinegar three or more times a year and using it at least once a month. In addition to white vinegar, respondents said they have apple cider, balsamic, wine, rice and malt vinegars in their cupboards.

Many times a recipe will call for vinegar without specifying which kind needs to be used. In this case, Milewski advised using apple cider vinegar.

But whatever kind you use, "Vinegar really adds pizzazz and balances out flavors already present in a dish," she said.

Contact Anne Braly at abraly@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6285.

Sweet and Sour Meatballs

1 can (8 to 81/4 ounces) crushed pineapple

1/2 cup apple cider vinegar

1/4 cup firmly packed brown sugar

2 tablespoons soy sauce

1 teaspoon ginger

11/2 pounds lean ground beef

3/4 cup dry bread crumbs

1/4 cup milk

1 egg, slightly beaten

1/2 teaspoon salt

Dash pepper

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1 tablespoon cornstarch

1 tablespoon water

Drain pineapple, reserving liquid; set pineapple aside. Add water to reserved liquid to measure 3/4 cup. Add vinegar and next three ingredients; set aside. Combine beef and next five ingredients lightly but well. Form into 30 meatballs, using a rounded tablespoon for each. Brown meatballs in oil in large skillet; drain excess fat. Add pineapple liquid mixture. Cover; simmer 15 to 20 minutes or until meatballs are cooked, stirring occasionally. Stir in reserved pineapple. Combine cornstarch and water; stir into skillet. Cook until sauce is thickened, stirring constantly. Makes 6 servings.

- www.heinzvinegar.com

Pasta With Szechwan Peanut Dressing

8 ounces linguine

2 cups broccoli

1/3 cup peanut butter

1/2 cup vegetable stock or hot water

1 teaspoon soy sauce

2 tablespoons rice vinegar

2 tablespoons safflower oil

2 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 teaspoon dry crushed red pepper

2 cups cherry tomatoes

Chopped scallions for garnish

Bring a large pot of water to a boil; cook pasta until al dente. While pasta is cooking, steam broccoli florets. In a medium-size bowl, whisk together peanut butter and stock or water until smooth. Stir in next five ingredients. When pasta is done, drain well. Pour sauce over pasta; toss to coat well. Add broccoli and tomatoes; toss again. Garnish with chopped scallions. Serves 4.

- www.cooks.com

Creamy Blue Cheese Dressing

6 tablespoons evaporated milk

2 ounces blue cheese

1 tablespoon malt vinegar

1 tablespoon dry mustard

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon pepper

1 pint mayonnaise

Add 1 tablespoon milk to crumbled blue cheese and cream thoroughly. Add remaining milk and other ingredients. Blend until smooth and creamy.

- www.cooks.com

Tarragon Mustard

Serve warm or cold as a complement to beef, chicken, pork or lamb.

1/2 cup whole-grain prepared mustard

1 teaspoon dry mustard

1/2 cup dry white wine

1/4 cup white wine vinegar

1 tablespoon brown sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons dried tarragon

In a saucepan on a low heat, combine the mustards, wine and vinegar. Cover and cook for about 20 minutes, stirring frequently and being careful not to burn. Stir in the brown sugar and salt, and allow to cook, uncovered, for another 3-4 minutes.

Remove the saucepan from the heat and add the tarragon. Spoon the mustard into a sterilized jar; seal and label. It will keep for 1 month stored in the refrigerator, but is best served immediately as it loses some of the tartness as it ages. The mixture will thicken as it cools.

- www.cooking.com

HOW THEY USE IT

Virginia Cofer, chef/owner Petunia's Silver Jalapeno

"I love working with vinegars. They're like a fine wine."

Favorites: Balsamic, any kind: white, red and regular dark.

Surprising use: I use it in the teriyaki sauce for my Asian pasta salad. It gives it a good bite.

Susan Moses, chef/co-owner 212 Market

"It's easy to use because you don't have to get it, cut it and squeeze it. It couldn't be any simpler. And when you use it, you need less salt ... It gives dishes a sharpness and brightness of flavor without having to use lemon, too. Vinegar brings that out, and it's also really healthy for you."

Favorites: Sherry vinegars, herb vinegars.

Surprising use: White vinegar added to a chocolate angel food cake.

Michael Adams, chef/owner Blue Orleans Seafood Restaurant

Vinegar offers a flavor that can be adapted like nothing else. I use red wine vinegar in many sauces. It has a distinct flavor but one that is hard to pick out when mixed with other ingredients. It marries flavors so well.

Favorites: White wine and apple cider vinegars.

Surprising use: In my beurre blanc (white butter sauce). I add some champagne or white wine vinegar, and it adds so much flavor.

Michael Summerow, executive chef, Chattanooga Choo Choo

"I use it a lot. It brings the flavor out in foods, particularly green vegetables. I soak my pork butts and ribs in it. It adds to the flavor and breaks the meat down so it doesn't take my ribs as long to cook."

Favorite: Apple cider vinegar.

Surprising use: In fish batter. It adds a really good flavor and brings out the flavor of the fish.

VINEGAR VARIETIES

Some popular specialty vinegars currently on the market include:

Balsamic vinegar: Has a long shelf life; can be stored in a closed container indefinitely in a cool place. Salad dressings, sauces and gravies benefit from the addition of balsamic vinegar. Sprinkle on cooked meats to add flavor and aroma. Season salad greens, strawberries, peaches and melons.

Malt vinegar: Has a distinctive flavor most often used as a companion to fish and chips but also good with chicken and in making pickles.

Raspberry red wine vinegar: Has a characteristic dark red color and a piquant, yet delicate, raspberry flavor. Sprinkle on fruit salads. Use as a marinade or basting sauce for meats. Use as an ingredient in your favorite salad dressing or by itself on salads or cooked vegetables.

Rice vinegar: Light in color with a delicate, clean flavor. Sprinkle a dash over salads. Add to a quick stir-fry dish with ginger, or liven up vegetables and fruits.

White wine vinegar: Has a distinctly acidic taste and the aroma reminiscent of the wine from which it comes. Use it to bring out the sweetness in strawberries and melons. Add a twist to spicy salsas and marinades, and wake up the flavor of sauces and glazes. Replace heavy cream or butter with a splash of white wine vinegar to balance flavors without adding fat. The tart, tangy taste also reduces the need for salt.

Source: www.versatilevinegar.org

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