Kitchen Shrink: Aged to Perfection vs. Sweet Young Things
In a society obsessed with aging and an admiration for youth, it’s funny that in the food world many old ones are actually revered and coveted for their fine qualities acquired through years of maturation. Other foods, of course, (like people) are prized for their tender young attributes.
While doing some spring cleaning in my wine cabinet, I found a bottle of port given to us on our wedding day 25 years ago. It’s either going to be a biohazard, a fine-aged vinegar, or a divine fortified wine. Umm, maybe I’ll open it to see if it’s a rancid dud or a delightful gem. Hopefully, the latter as port contains a load more sugar and alcohol than table wine, acting as a mighty preserving agent.
As for wines, not all varieties improve with age — only the “fine” ones. These are mainly the robust reds and some astringent whites from the Bordeaux and Burgundy regions of France, along with some Italian and Spanish varietals, but never the soft, low-tannic ones. These lighter, brighter fruity wines should be enjoyed in their exuberant youth (a couple years after their release), like rosés and Sauvignon Blancs.
Dark, full-bodied Italian balsamic vinegar also made from grapes (including juice, skin, seeds, stems) is grouped into three age categories: young (3-5 years), middle-aged (6-12 years), and old (exceeding 12 years). Some of the best balsamics have aged in a series of wood barrels for over a century accounting for the sticker shock.
Authentic Parmesan cheese called Parmesan Reggiano produced by traditional methods in Parma, Italy is a divine oldie but goodie. By law, the cheese must remain in the Rittling (aging) room for a minimum of 12 months, although this immature teenager is still soft, pale and tricky to grate. Other cheeses continue to age gracefully till they reach 24 or 36 months, developing marbles of granulated protein with a crunch and burst of umami flavors. As an added boon, the aging process removes most of the lactose sugar, making Parmesan easily digestible.
Aged beef is trending now, whether by the dry- or wet-aging process. Both methods use highly controlled temperature, humidity and air circulation for the duration of 10 to 45 days. Powerful enzymes break down fibrous collagen tissue creating a flavorful piece of meat, so tender it’s like “budda” in your mouth.
Most other meats and fowls are best at a tender age. Young juicy chickens ideal for roasting are usually under 12-weeks old, while tough old birds are best for stocks and stewing. Diminutive Cornish Rock hens also called “spring chickens” under six weeks of age usually top off at two-pounds, delicately flavored, and melt-in-your-mouth tender cook quickly, even when stuffed with traditional wild rice, and make an elegant change-up from chickens and turkeys.
While spring lamb comes from an animal less than three months of age; the most tender, pink-fleshed ones imported from Down Under. Grass-fed Australian lamb is lean and flavorful, not gamy and tough like mutton from older sheep.
When it comes to vegetables, the immature versions of adult varieties are usually sweeter, more tender and delicate, while making a whimsical presentation. These early harvested cuties (not to be confused with fully-ripe miniatures) also contain the same nutrients as their elders, so veg up on:
• petite carrots (not the peeled “baby” nubs) in white, purple and orange varieties eaten with part of their grassy tops, either roasted or raw as snacks or crudités
• brilliantly green petite peas for risottos and paellas
• baby “new” potatoes, perfect for roasting
• vibrant microgreens harvested by their 14-day birthday ideal for sandwiches and garnishes
• baby greens, more digestible than their adult forms, whether spinach, arugula, romaine, or kale
• baby zucchini has tiny seeds, and sweet flesh
• tender baby corn cobs can be munched whole, or tossed in stir-fries
• Haricot verts or French string beans are young, slender, tender green beans without stringy spines
Recipe: Old World Eggplant Parmesan
• Ingredients: 1 large eggplant, thinly sliced (skin intact); 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil, more for pan-frying;;1 24-ounce jar crushed Italian tomatoes; 2 garlic cloves, minced; 1 handful fresh basil, chopped; 1 teaspoon honey; 4 ounces each Mozzarella and Parmesan (aged at least 24-months), shredded, blended; sea salt and cayenne pepper to taste.
• Method: Preheat oven to 450 degrees F. In saucepan, heat oil on low; sauté garlic until tender. Add tomatoes, honey, basil, spices; simmer 15 minutes.
In large skillet, coat bottom with oil and pan-fry eggplant slices in batches until tender, but firm. Drain; set aside on baking sheet.
In a rectangular, oven-safe baking dish, alternate layers starting with sauce, then eggplant, and repeat. For the top layer, sprinkle cheese mixture. Bake about 20 minutes until cheese is bubbly.
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