The beauty of balsamic By Anne Willan Special to The Washington Post A kitchen without balsamic vinegar is hard to imagine. Yet barely 15 years ago, balsamic was an obscure Italian ingredient, prized by cognoscenti but little noticed outside its native province of Emilia Romagna. Now trendy chefs scatter it on anything from abalone to zebra, far too much in my opinion. Let's be up front: a little balsamic is a blessing, an overdose can be fatal to any ingredient. So where does balsamic vinegar do best? I think of it first as a splendid seasoning, adding inimitable depth of taste to marinades for fish and poultry, and to grilled vegetables such as eggplant and bell peppers. In principle, balsamic vinegar will do well wherever a touch of sweetness is welcome. Onion or leek confit flavored with balsamic has become classic, as has the dash of balsamic in a tomato-and-mozzarella insalata caprese. We all think of pears with blue cheese, but in Italy pears with well-aged parmesan and a few drops of the very best balsamic are the traditional combination to end a meal. Notice I say the very best. Fine balsamic, aged 25 years or more, can be sipped from the glass like port. (The name comes from "balsam," the plant resin that is rubbed on the skin as medicinal balm.) Ripe strawberries have a particular affinity for the dense, aromatic taste of balsamic, and I personally think that a freshly picked heirloom tomato, its acid and sweetness intensified with a sprinkling of the best balsamic, can be sublime. As a key ingredient in vinaigrette dressing, balsamic pairs particularly well with olive, walnut or hazelnut oils. Olive oil-balsamic vinaigrette is outstanding with lobster and scallops, globe artichokes and asparagus. A nut oil and balsamic dressing does well with winter vegetables such as carrots, turnips, squash and sweet potatoes, as well as cold weather greens such as frisee, radicchio and Belgian endive. It is with delicate summer lettuces that I think a balsamic vinaigrette is too heavy, but by no means would everyone agree. Only a tiny proportion of balsamic production is the real thing. Less than 3,000 gallons of genuine Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale are released each year, all of it made in Modena, a historic town just west of Bologna, or in nearby Reggio Emilia. Traditizionale is made from freshly pressed juice ("must") of the Trebbiano grape that is boiled down by more than half to a dark syrup laden with sugar, which leads to the distinctive sweetness of the finished vinegar. The syrup is transferred to oak casks to ferment in the open air and then starts the long evaporation and aging process that makes artisan balsamic vinegar unique. Over the years the vinegar mellows and intensifies by evaporation as it is transferred to ever-smaller casks of various woods, ending with one of juniper. Measure for measure, prices of the best balsamic match those of a top Bordeaux or pinot noir wine. When buying balsamic, the key word on the label is tradizionale, the guarantee that it was made and aged in Modena by traditional methods. Balsamic vinegar does not deteriorate after opening as oxygen is part of the aging process, so treasure your best bottle and use it on special occasions. To subject such nectar to heat would be an insult. Happily for us cooks, more modest and affordable everyday versions of balsamic vinegar, costing $20 and up, are also made in Modena and elsewhere. These are the vinegars that are so valuable as marinades, as flavorings in sauces and dressings and that can be simmered a short time without serious damage to their character. There are a lot of bad balsamics out there, too, at their worst made simply of white vinegar and caramelized brown sugar. On the whole you get what you pay for, so be sure to read the label. All those sweet-sour recipes for duck and pork can be adapted to make good use of a moderately priced balsamic vinegar, as can delicious dark sauces for quail, dove, wild duck and venison. Somewhat to my surprise, balsamic vinegar is a great substitute for Marsala with veal scaloppini and saltimbocca. Ten years ago, I witnessed a classic exchange. Italian cooking expert Lynne Rosetto Kasper was giving an impromptu survey of balsamic vinegar to several dozen fellow food writers who were watching Julia Child and me cook up some salmon for lunch. Lynne is an enthusiast, and as two minutes stretched to five, the pan began to smoke. The balsamic was burning! A cry came from Julia: "You'll have to stop talking, we're here to cook." Andiamo! Pears with parmesan Allow a plump, ripe pear per person. Shortly before serving, halve the pear, scoop out core and stem, and cut each half into quarters. Set the quarters on a serving plate and drizzle with about a teaspoon of good balsamic vinegar. Top with a sprinkling of freshly ground black pepper and three to four curls of thinly shaved parmesan cheese, cut from a block that is not too dry. Balsamic vinaigrette Classic proportions for vinaigrette dressing are one part vinegar to three parts oil, with seasoning of salt, pepper and Dijon-style mustard (a teaspoonful of mustard for every half cup of dressing is typical). However, the flavor of balsamic vinegar is intense, and with olive oil or a light vegetable oil, I would recommend proportions of one part vinegar to four or five of oil. With the fragrance of nut oils such as walnut and hazelnut the balance changes back again, possibly to one of balsamic, three of oil. Other flavorings for a balsamic vinaigrette might include herbs (chives and sage are particularly good), finely chopped fresh ginger root or shallot, but I find garlic incompatible with the vinegar's sweetness. It is all a question of adjusting the finished dressing to your taste, bearing in mind what it will accompany. Casanova's chocolate sauce Makes 1 ½ cups sauce to serve 4 to 6 Try this sauce with poached pears or as a fondue for dipping strawberries, bananas or biscotti. ¼ cup balsamic vinegar ½ pound finely chopped dessert (semisweet) chocolate 1 cup heavy cream 2 tablespoons butter, cut into pieces Boil balsamic vinegar until reduced by about half and very syrupy, about five minutes. Remove from the heat and let cool slightly. Stir in chocolate and cream, place over low heat and heat gently, stirring frequently, until chocolate melts. Then increase the heat to medium-high and bring to a boil. The sauce should coat the back of a spoon; if necessary, reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer for one to two minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in butter. Serve the sauce warm or at room temperature. The sauce will thicken as it cools and may need thinning with cream. Balsamic tuna tartare 4 to 6 servings The very best tuna -- sushi-grade if you can find it -- is crucial for tartare. It is also important to season the tuna as lightly as possible so the delicate taste of ultra-fresh raw fish comes clearly through. Tartare is best served within 30 minutes because the acid in the lime juice and vinegar start to "cook" the fish. Make it as close to serving as you can -- it takes very little time. For serving, you may like to add sliced avocado to the plate, with daikon or cucumber for contrast of texture. 3 shallots, finely chopped 2 tablespoons capers, drained, rinsed and finely chopped ½ fresh jalapeno pepper, seeded and finely chopped 1 tablespoon finely chopped chives 1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley 1 pound piece of fresh sushi-grade tuna 2 tablespoons olive oil, plus additional as needed 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar, plus additional as needed 1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lime juice, plus additional as needed Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste 1 lime, sliced, for garnish Parsley sprigs for garnish In a large bowl, combine the shallots, capers, jalapeno, chives and parsley; set aside. Trim and discard any skin, bone and/or membrane from the tuna. Cut the tuna into one-fourth-inch-thick slices, then cut it into one-fourth-inch-wide strips and finally cut into one-fourth-inch dices. Add the tuna to the shallot mixture and stir gently to combine. Add the oil and stir gently to combine. Repeat with the vinegar, then with the lime juice. Season with salt, pepper and additional oil, vinegar and lime juice to taste and toss gently to combine. Divide the tartare evenly among four individual plates and garnish with lime and parsley. Cover and refrigerate for 10 to 15 minutes prior to serving. Per serving (based on four): 246 calories, 12 gm fat, 43 milligrams cholesterol, 280 milligrams sodium. Anne Willan is the founder of La Varenne cooking school. Her current book is "Cooking With Wine" (Harry N. Abrams, $49.50). © The Times-Picayune. Used with permission.