1.31.2005

Roasted Butternut Squash and Gnocchi with Goat Gouda

This was a dinner whipped up in relatively short order, that seems a whole lot fancier. Simple enough for a quick week night dinner, but fancy enough to crack open a special bottle of wine. And delicious.

In true weeknight fashion, I used those wonderful peeled butternut squash halves they sell shrinkwrapped (though I can manage to cut it up myself, I find the pieces are often mushy), and prepared gnocchi. I appreciate that vacuum sealed gnocchi can't approach tender, hand-made little dumplings in texture or flavor. But compromises must sometimes be made, and after some experimentation I have found a brand and a preparation that works for me.

Serves four
For the squash:
  • 1/2 large butternut squash, peeled and cut into 1/2" chunks
  • 1/8 cup green olive oil
  • 1 tbl coarse sea salt
  • 1 tbl fresh cracked pepper
  • 6 bay leaves, roughly crumpled

Preheat the oven to 350F. Toss all ingredients together on a sheet pan, and roast until soft and a more than a little bit brown, about 40 minutes.

Meanwhile, for the gnocchi:
  • 1 lb prepared gnocchi
  • 4 tbl butter
  • 2 tbl olive oil

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, toss in gnocchi and stir gently. Meanwhile, in a large saucepan over medium high heat, melt the butter and allow to continue cooking until thoroughly browned. By then the gnocchi should be done, they will have risen to the surface of the water. Skim them off and drain, shaking off excess water. Add the gnocchi and the olive oil to the butter and allow the gnocchi to develop a bit of brown crust, stirring occasionally.


To assemble the meal:
  • 4 oz hard goat gouda

Shave the goat gouda (I use my vegetable peeler) into large but thin slices. Loosely toss the gnocchi and the squash, being careful not to mash the squash, and spoon out onto plates. Cover each portion lavishly with cheese.

1.24.2005

Worst Pancake Mix Ever

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Krusteaz Buttermilk Complete Pancake Mix is the worst pancake mix I've ever had.

I know I shouldn't expect too much from pancake mixes, and I don't. I know I could easily make my own, and all the warning signs about this product were there, but the warning signs are also tricky mirages that make you want to believe things you know in your heart of hearts are impossible. Like good pancake mix for which you only need water.

"Just Add Water" Sigh. I want it so badly. Sunday mornings when I have eggs and milk I am going to make eggs. The pancake mix is for when I don't have those things, I want it for the back-up, for lazy mornings when getting dressed to go out for eggs is too much bother. But the flavor and texture are never right. In this case, worse than ever. The resulting pancakes are gummy. Gummy! And tough and chewy, not light and fluffy. And terribly flavorless. Sigh. Not an ounce of buttermilk flavor, despite the large font in which Buttermilk is written on the package. The only flavor comes from the copious amounts of butter and syrup we dump on these atrocious discs, which they soak up greedily, betraying their desperate dryness.

I know I only have myself to blame, that fate tempted me and I was weak. I can only hope I help you avoid the same awful fate. Our package was 3 1/2 lbs (on sale for 99 cents, yet another sign I failed to heed), so we have many pancakes to choke down before we are freed of our tormenter.



Another recipe for The Sauce

The Sauce - really, I must come up with a better name. To call it by its ingredients, honey and balsamic vinegar sauce, belies just how extraordinary it is. Suggestions are welcome.

And so, although I love beets, for which I originally used The Sauce, I wanted more recipes that featured it, so I could eat it that much more often. Enter the dinner salad. Although not a vinagrette by any stretch of the imagination, The Sauce does feature vinegar mixed with another ingredient, which was the spark I needed. Arugula, naturally, because it is great in winter, has a flavor I admire without end that is a good foil for sweet things, and deals well with heat. (The Sauce likes to be warm.) Apples, too. Apples like honey, they like arugula, and I like them. Nice crisp tart-sweet apples, warmed and browned under the broiler. And to bring the two together, to make it more dinner than side, bacon. By then it wanted cheese. Blue, of course. But I didn't want the cheese in the salad, that would mess with my conception of the textures. The cheese would melt on the warm ingredients, and then would mix with the sauce instead of being draped in it. No, not in the salad. The salad had enough ingredients. Alongside, on focaccia. And since I'd have the the broiler heated up for the apples, we'd throw the focaccia with blue under it until it bubbled and browned just a tad. With the last of our case of 2004's Beaujolais Nouveau (one of my favorite years in recent history--very pleasant wine) dinner would be complete.

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Dinner Salad of Arugula, Apples, and Bacon with Honey-Balsamic Sauce
two serious servings, with leftover bread

  • 8 oz bacon
  • 2 medium tart & crips apples, such as Cortland or Crispin
  • 1 bunch arugula (about six oz)
  • 1/2 cup best quality honey
  • 1/3 cup best quality balsamic vinegar (for notes on balsamic vinegar and honey, see the original post containing this recipe, Amarone Wine Feast. Scroll down to the bottom.)
  • Focaccia (we made ours from scratch. It wasn't worth it. Store bought is perfectly wonderful, if purchased from a decent bakery.)
  • 8 oz very creamy blue cheese (I used St. Agur from France, purchased at my favorite cheese store, C'est Cheese. It was amazingly creamy, dreamy creamy, with a good, clear blue flavor. Strong but not overpowering. Perfect for this dish.)
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Prepare the bacon.* Break or cut it into large chunks and set aside. Preheat broiler. Prepare the sauce by whisking together honey and balamic vinegar over low heat. Allow to remain on the heat, whisking occasionally, while you prepare the rest of the meal. Wash and dry the arugula, tearing off the bottoms of the stems. Tear into bite-sized chunks. Wash and core apples, but do not peel. Slice them very very thinly. If you have a mandoline, even better (I do not and was fine, but once again longed for this bit of convienence.) Lay the slices out in a single layer on a sheet pan, using two and broiling in batches if neccessary. Broil the apple slices until they are lightly browed, about 5 minutes.
Prepare the focaccia: slice in half horizontally and smear the inside of the bottom thickly with blue cheese. Place under the broiler until melted and bubbly and slightly browned, about 3 minutes. Broil the top half of the focaccia until lightly toasted, put the halves back together and compress firmly. Slice into thin wedges.
Assemble the salads: layer the arugula, then the apples, then the bacon. Drizzle the warm sauce over everything and serve with many wedges of the focaccia and blue broiled sandwich.

*I like to use Alton Brown's method, which involves laying the bacon out on a rack over a sheet pan and putting it in a cold oven, then turning the oven on to 400F. 30 - 40 minutes later the bacon is done. Not greasy, not burnt. Done and done well, without mess, without having to stand over the stove and attend to it.

Fleur Vert & Paté

In North Hampton, there is a great cheese store by the name of C'est Cheese. Nancy Briggs, proprietor, is crazy in that good way. I like to arrive in time for an afternoon snack, because I know by the time she's done with me, I'll be satiated. She'll offer everyone who comes by taste after taste after taste, seemingly in an effort just to share her joy over the goodness of cheese. Somehow we are all infected, and end up with many little bundles not only of cheese, but of little beautiful brined peppers, a bit of Greek honey, and maybe some mousse paté.

I went in looking for a very creamy blue for a recipe I'd been dreaming up. Besides the beautiful blue, I ended up with a goat Gouda, which I've had before and which is heavenly. A fairly hard cheese, the slices of which are luscious with a little bit of honey drizzled on them. It has a much milder goat-y taste than fresh goat's cheese, and is somehow creamy and a bit dry. In a word, wonderful.

I also came out with a slice of Fleur Vert, a fresh goat cheese covered in herbs and pink peppercorns. The stark white of the cheese, with its cheesecake like texture, and the green of the herbs and the whole pink peppercorns make a beautiful picture. The cheese is mild, the herbs are not overpowering but add to the whole, and the pink peppercorns are surprisingly delightful. I had expected them to either be too pungent or too hard, but they are soft and only a bit crunchy. There is a certain sweetness to the cheese which I'm not accustomed to in fresh goat cheese, which makes the whole charmingly unique.

So dinner was thrown together in a few minutes from store-bought things: a few slices of baguette, a slice of paté, a large slice of Fleur Vert, some grainy mustard, and some little pickled things like cornichons and a couple French olives. Simple, sustaining, and a total indulgence to the palate.

1.23.2005

Cafe Espresso, Portsmouth NH

I'll admit it. I have a huge prejudice against restaurants in strip malls. The atmosphere of the strip mall would never inspire confidence. Really, being flanked by Blockbusters and dry cleaners and that other random yet important business that you actually go to (in this case, Eagle Photo's new location) doesn't naturally lead one to think, hmmm, let's sit down and have a nice relaxing meal. Instead, one is thinking, how fast can I get out of this parking lot?

So it was only because I was waiting for Eagle Photo to open one morning that I popped in. And I was wrong. I can admit that, too. Cafe Espresso, while located in a strip mall, does inspire one to forget that Eagle Photo errand and sit down and have a nice relaxing meal.

My first visit (out of three) was the best. It was on a weekday, at 8:30 in the morning. The place was very busy (don't these people work? and who was I to be asking) but there were several empty tables in the front section and I got a seat immediately. What I like so much about Cafe Espresso is their interesting and changing specials. Breakfast, one of my favorite meals, can get boring. So it is nice to see some interesting things. I had a hard time deciding so my waitress gave me her opinion. I ended up with a regular menu item, the Ranchero ($6.30), hash and poached eggs on English with caramelized onions and a good hollandaise. It was the caramelized onions that got me. A really winning combination. And the potatoes. Why are great home fries so hard for most restaurants? These were perfect little chunks of red bliss potatoes, very moist and thoroughly cooked, with lots and lots of crispy brown griddled bits. Wonderful.

Second and third visits were not quite as heavenly, though I still find it a good breakfast place. They offer a couple variations of a piggy breakfast, which gets you a bit of everything. My second breakfast (a Sunday morning) was the French toast piggy (about $7.00), with French toast, home fries, eggs, and meat. I really can never choose French toast over egg creations, even though I adore French toast. This French toast was a bit too raw, and made with generic thin white bread. Some really thick bread would've been more to my liking, but I would have settled for cooked. The eggs were fine, but the home fries were also underdone compared to my previous visit. Still moist, still no raw potato, but where were the delicious brown crispy bits? Woe is me.

For the third visit (Saturday morning) I had the Old Crow special ($6.30). Griddled English topped with sausage patties topped with poached eggs topped with sausage gravy. The eggs were perfectly poached little balls of goodness. I have great respect for perfectly poached eggs. The sausage, well, if you like sausage, is it ever bad? Of course it wasn't homemade or anything, but they did have the decency to give it a nice crisp exterior when they griddled it. The sausage gravy was decent. Instead of ground sausage, which I prefer, it had cut up bits in it, and the flavor wasn't very exciting, but it wasn't gluey or too heavy. The potatoes were again moist and cooked, but lacking in the yummy browned bits that sent me to Nirvana that first visit.

On the second visit B had something that was supposed to have Andouille in it. If it was Andouille it was the worst Andouille in the world. I think it was kielbasa. On the third he had a hash, poached egg, bagel and cheese sauce concoction. The cheese sauce was despicable. It had separated and become both greasy and gritty and tasted nothing of cheese. The hash is fine, not special, despite the fact that the menu calls it "longhorn hash" whenever it is mentioned.

Seacoast Eats has a link to their menu, but it seems horribly out of date. Many more items are on their menu now. At least the address and hours are correct.

Despite these failings, Cafe Espresso is overall a fine place to eat breakfast, even on a weekend. For one thing, even when the food is not great, it is fine. It was never (except for that cheese sauce) gross. Sometimes that's all you can ask, and in many a breakfast spot, more than you can ask. And being in a strip mall actually provides a couple of additional pluses: the parking is ample and never a struggle, and the restaurant itself is fairly large with plenty of seats. Combined this means you don't have to walk far in the cold, or stand in the cold while waiting for a table on a weekend. And finally, the waitstaff is stellar. There are plenty of them, they are prompt without rushing, attentive without being overbearing, and generally do their job well.

1.17.2005

My Fav Pastry Brush

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This thing has changed my life. (This thing is the 15 inch blue silicone basting brush by ISI, the same people who created the Orca mitt.) I used to avoid pastry brushes and the recipes that called for them. Or I'd figure a weird way around using one that didn't quite do what I needed it to do and took a whole lot of extra work besides. My problem with pastry brushes? They never seemed to be truly clean and their hairs would fall out into my food. Yes, I did buy good quality ones, ones that cost way more than two bucks and came from gourmet markets. It didn't help. They always felt greasy from butter, or had stains from bits of other sauces. And the hairs. Ewwww.

So this one was a revelation. It does a great job of picking up whatever oil or buttery thing I need it to, does a great job of depositing it in a gentle way - even on phyllo. And then when I wash it, it gets clean. Simple things to ask of a pastry brush, really.

I looked around to try to find one for sale for you. Most places they are out of stock (goes to show just how popular they are). But cooking.com has a fun feature where they will email you once it becomes ready. The better thing to do is support your local gourmet gadget supply store. For us on the seacoast, that is Artichokes.

1.16.2005

Speaking of Heather . . . Artichoke Dip

My previously mentioned friend Heather often makes this way fab Artichoke Dip for any sort of gathering. I usually hover around it, and when people ask me, in that friendly making party conversation kind of way people do, what I am eating, I snarl and tell them it is awful, please go away so I can eat all of the Artichoke Dip without having to feign politeness - it slows me down.

Heather has always tried to tell me that it is "super-easy" and hand over the recipe. Now that she is in Spain, I've been forced to listen. And it is super-easy. Insanely easy. It took, literally, 7 minutes to make. So now I will begin serving it at every shindig (mostly so I can eat it myself). And it is the kind of recipe, as long as you have two cans of artichokes, where most likely you have the rest of the ingredients in the house most of the time. The sort of last minute-company's-coming recipe that Ladies' Home Journal and Good Housekeeping are always trying to push. But good.

Heather's Artichoke Dip (and modifications, 'cuz I can't leave well enough alone)

2 cans artichokes (I used artichoke bottoms because I think they taste more 'choke-y, and they don't have any fiber issues. Although I have never experienced fiber issues in Heather's dip)
1 cup mayonnaise
1 cup Parmesan cheese (she uses the fake-o stuff, I used real, both successful)
1 clove garlic (I used two, some strong purple German garlic, but what I really want to try is throwing a whole bulb of roasted garlic in there. I think that would be heavenly. But then it would have taken some planning ahead. And I was hungry.)
dash of Worcestershire

Puree everything together in a food processor or heavy duty blender. Serve warm, with slices of bread, crackers, tortillas, or my absolute favorite - homemade pita chips.

If you need a recipe for pita chips:
Preheat oven to 350°. Split pitas in half so that you have two thin rounds. Place on baking sheets, pita insides-up. Brush with olive oil; season with kosher salt and freshly ground pepper. Cut into triangles. Bake about 12 minutes. For this much artichoke dip, you'll need about 10 pitas.


1.15.2005

Restaurant to open at Strawbery Banke - the growing food empire of Jay McSharry

Restaurant to open at Strawbery Banke

Not that I mind - his restaurants are good, and mostly different from each other. The only one I've never visited is Dover Sole, because I have this weird personal grudge against Dover, for petty reasons - I'm tired of all my friends moving there and thus away from me. Back to the point.

It is sure to be interesting food, whatever shape the restaurant takes. I love the idea of historically influenced food - not just space. And what a great spot, abutting Prescott Park.

1.12.2005

What's For Dinner?

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This company in Portsmouth, NH has really improved my regular eating habits. Sure, I love to cook. It's what I do. I am into it. But that doesn't mean I have the time or energy to cook everyday. And I do eat out a decent amount. It's the take-out I was looking to cut down on. That busy-week-at-work-no-time-to-shop-crappy-take-out that I (and my waist) didn't need. I have no problem with delivery pizza once and a while, even less of a problem with delivery chinese. But the once in a while was becoming often and I needed something I could count on to be reasonably healthy. And this company does it.

Visit their website, check out the menus. Sign up for a night and choose 12 meals (doubling up to avoid ones you don't like the looks of is ok). Show up for an hour with your own wine if you like, throw pre-prepared ingredients together into foil and other disposable (but generally re-usable) containers and give them $125. You've got 12 meals that serve 2-4 people to throw in your freezer. I generally use two a week, keeping them thawing during week-days, because on weekends I know for sure I'll cook or eat out.

The meals are generally ok to good. Never bad. If anything, they are a bit bland, but when catering to a non-cooking crowd of busy people, most of whom are trying to serve families, it makes sense. Way better than tv dinners. And I know they've been made with real ingredients, no sketchy chemicals or bizarre fillers, because I put them together in a 1-2-3 style production kitchen. It's easy, it's fast, it's really not that expensive because most of the meals are protein heavy, and proteins cost. I'm still trying to talk them into an organic night. They are receptive to the idea, but haven't become so enthused they've done it, yet.

1.08.2005

Beautiful Olive Bowl From Spain

My friend Heather, who is teaching English in Barcelona for two years, was home over Christmas and brought me this amazing olive serving dish:


bestolivebowl

The main bowl is illustrated Aceitunas or olives, the round tubby one on the left is Huesos, literally meaning bones, but here referring to the pits. The thin part on the right is labeled Palillos, or toothpicks. What a perfectly clever olive server! It makes it very easy to put out a small portion of olives at every gathering, without having to remember a lot of accoutrements. It is very much handmade, but sturdy.

She purchased it in the Talvera region, which is known for its ceramics. I found two similar ones for sale on the web, if you are interested, though neither is as great as mine. The first is from a company I know a little about, A Little Corner of Spain. They are a husband and wife importing team, who now live in Stratham, NH. I have purchased their astounding chorizo in the past, and I will never buy the store stuff again. I also love their selection of Spanish olives, and have totally converted to the sweet smoked Paprika they have for sale. Their olive bowl has only one little compartment, but is very beautifully and intricately decorated. The other is from a company I know nothing about, La Tienda, so I can't comment on their reliability or the quality of their products and services, but their olive bowl is very similar to the one I received.

1.05.2005

Maya Angelou's Hallelujah! The Welcome Table: A Lifetime of Memories With Recipes

I received this book for Christmas and have enjoyed it. I've read all the text and recipes, and am now going back through the recipes to collate the ones I'd like to prepare. There is great diversity in the recipes, including the expected Fried Chicken, Corn Bread Stuffing, and various cakes and pies, to the unexpected but delightful and different Tomato Souffle, Pate, and Wilted Lettuce.
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The "Memories" of the title take up the vast majority of the 218 page text. This isn't Angelou's finest literature, rather they are light essays on an amazing assortment of life experiences centered around food. From the serious and significant - an emotionally charged dinner with her mother, her grandmother baking Maya a caramel cake to show that she loves Maya after being slapped by her school teacher, cooking for M.F.K. Fisher, meeting and becoming great friends with Oprah - to the hilarious and mundane - helping a friend prepare Mexican food to woo a man, cooking Southern to get a job that has nothing to do with cooking, stretching meals when money was tight, a fancy dinner with a friend who had the nerve to put Tobasco on Veal Medallions. Each essay is followed with the appropriate recipes. There were a few essays that were stand-out, but a couple were so banal they seemed included just for the sake of a really good recipe. Most were simply charming and entertaining.

The recipes seem ok. The instructions are bare-bones, giving the slimmest of detail. There aren't any notes on ingredients, despite there being quite a few recipes that call for uncommon ones. These recipes are clearly written for people who already know how to cook, people who are very comfortable in the kitchen. It isn't that the rec
ipes are exceptionally vague, it's just that they don't provide signposts along the way. For example, the recipe for Menudos (p 104) tells you to, "simmer for 6 hours, or until tripe is tender". And if you have no idea what tripe is supposed to be like when tender? The recipe for Beef Wellington is similarly lacking. The instructions are two paragraphs in length, while most successful Beef Wellington recipes take two pages of instruction. This recipe also calls for you to make your own Puff Pastry, the entire instructions for which are, "Sift together flour, baking powder, and salt. Cut in shortening. Mix in egg mixture lightly. Chill for 1 hour" (p 160). If you are unfamiliar with the process or the desired outcome, it is difficult to know when the shortening is properly cut in, or what the final dough should look and feel like after you have "lightly" mixed in the egg.

For many people, I know, the lack of specific instructions is no problem. My complaint stems from knowing many other people for whom it would be a problem, for whom such instructions would lead to disappointing or disastrous food outcomes, who would conclude yet again that they cannot cook. And they would be correct, because this is clearly a book for those who already can cook, and just need ingredient measurements and general guidelines to produce fabulous results.

There are quite a few recipes I am looking forward to trying: Spoon Bread, Cassoulet, Red Rice, and Onion Tart to name a few. There are also recipes I'm glad to own, although I'll tuck them away until I have one of those weekends where cooking for two days to produce a single dish seems very reasonable: Hog's Head Cheese, Eclairs, and Tamales.

Overall, I would suggest checking this book out from the public library instead of purchasing it, for all but the most die-hard Angelou fans. It is an easy and entertaining read, but isn't necessarily the kind of thing you'd read and re-read, looking for inspiration. I think in that respect, the title is somewhat misleading, and the sub-title, "A Lifetime of Memories with Recipes" is a much more apt preview of the contents of the book.

1.01.2005

New Year's Amarone Wine Feast

Although my favorite wine purveyor - Evan at Corks and Curds, 13 Commercial Ally in Portsmouth, NH - was horrified at the idea, I knew I was going to be cooking with Amarone wine for the holiday. And drinking it, too.

I had never even heard of this wine from Italy, but it started popping up a couple months ago after reading a recipe involving Egyptian onions and Amarone in the Arrows cookbook. Then, as such things often go, it started popping up over and over. When I first brought it up to Evan, hoping he could order some, he said, "Amarone? Of course. It is wonderful. But I would never cook with it. It is too good."

He's partially right. The wine is too good. It's like drinking velvet. So luscious. So rich. Nothing acidic or tongue-puckering about it, which is often what I don't like about dry and dryish reds. It is a smooth, seductive wine. What wine should be - endlessly interesting, totally drinkable, and unapologetically great. But for me, food can be as great as wine, and on occasion, expense be damned. Fantastic ingredients make for fantastic food.

Amarone is made from raisins, which for me explains the extraordinary richness - concentrated flavor. Evan ordered Santa Sofia's 1998 Amarone della Valpolicella Classico, retailing at $43.50 a bottle. Yes expensive, thus the holiday drinking/cooking choice. Supposedly you can substitute Barolo or Barbera wines in recipes calling for Amarone. I might give this a try, saving all the Amarone for drinking, although the food was totally incredible.

The Menu:

First course: (my own recipe, so it will appear at the bottom)
Roasted Beets with Ricotta Salata and a Honey-Balsamic Vinegar Sauce

Second course:
Pumpkin Rissotto with Amarone wine sauce
(I based this off of Tyler Florence's recipe, available at Food TV)

Third course:
- Flank steak cooked hot and fast with salt pepper and olive oil in cast iron
- Cippolinnes roasted with Amarone wine, rosemary and bay leaves (about 400 F for 40 minutes or so). Unfortunately, I couldn't get my hands on the Arrows cookbook when I needed it, so I was flying blind. But they were amazing.
- Barely wilted arugala with unfiltered olive oil and balsamic vinegrette

For Dessert:
A few bites of good quality chocolate and a few glasses of a tolerable port, not worth mentioning here

The Recipe:

Roasted Beets
serves four as a significant first course

4 large beets
2 tbl olive oil
1 tbl coarse sea salt
1 tbl freshly ground pepper
12 oz Ricotta Salata
1 cup honey
2/3 cup balsamic vinegar

Preheat oven to 400 F. Trim and scrub beets, then toss with olive oil, salt, and pepper. Roast, covered with foil, for about an hour. Remove from oven and allow to cool; make the sauce. Warm the honey and balsamic vinegar together in a saucepan over very low heat, whisking to combine. Keep the sauce just warm while you peel the beets. For great presentation, you can julienne the beets, or simply chop them coarsley. Coarsely crumble the ricotta salata, and barely combine with the beets - you don't want the cheese to become too broken up or too red. Drown each portion in honey balsamic sauce and serve warm.

With such a bare bones ingredients list, quality is everything, especially for the honey-balsamic sauce, which is the thing that makes this recipe great. Really, this whole recipe is an excuse to eat that sauce. I used raw Tupelo honey from the Savannah Bee Company ($16 for 20 oz) and Elsa Aged Balsamic Vinegar of Modena (I don't recall the price, but not cheap, not the most expensive, either). Both are available at Philbrick's Fresh Market if you live in the seacoast of NH. The honey is really the best ever, really worth it if you care about honey and available directly from the company at www.savannahbee.com. Good balsamic vinegar is richer and smoother and just more flavorful than the cheap stuff. Yeah, it's hard to spend money on vinegar, but it is worth it to have a good bottle around for just such recipes.