Boston has a neighborhood called the North End. If it was any bigger we’d probably call it Little Italy. There are a gazillion tiny Italian restaurants and pasty shops crammed into a few blocks. There are old men playing bocce ball, people eating gelato, couples toasting with grappa after dinner, and–my favorite–specialty Italian grocery stores.
My sister was in town over the weekend, and she suggested we stop into one of these grocers so she could pick up a few things to take home. I was definitely down with this plan, as specialty food markets make my heart beat a little faster.
In the market I picked up (among other things) a very nice bottle of balsamic vinegar and some imported sundried tomatoes. Much like some wines and cheese, true balsamic vinegar needs to be made in a specific region of Italy using very strict guidelines. I didn’t realize that the vinegar you buy at your regular grocery store is almost certainly not balsamic vinegar, but regular vinegar that has added sugar and food coloring in order approximate balsamic.
That’s not to say that grocery store balsamic is bad. Sometimes it’s quite good. But I didn’t realize how different the two really are until I tried the real thing.
The bottle I bought is made in Italy specifically for this little grocer I visited in the North End. It’s called Rubio, and it’s aceto balsamico di Modena (which is a good thing). I spent $35 for 8.5 ounces, and believe it or not, that’s a really, really good deal for real balsamic. The highest quality vinegars are in the $100-400 dollar range, and that’s for less than four ounces. See what I mean by $35 being a good deal?
Even if it is a good deal, is it worth it? Yes yes yes yes and yes. It’s fabulous. It’s slightly sweet, tangy, and really… deep. Robust. Indescribable. And while eight and a half ounces doesn’t sound like much, a little goes a long, long way. (If you’re interested, you can order it online here.)
When you have a few high quality ingredients, even a 10 minute lunch (it’s really that fast) is a memorable experience. When you have a few high quality ingredients, the simpler the dish the better. This little couscous number is dead easy, ridiculously quick, and so, so tasty.
Sundried Tomato and Basil Couscous with Aceto Balsamico
3 tsp Olive Oil
1/4 tsp Salt
1/4 Cup Chopped Fresh Basil
10-12 Oil Packed Sundried Tomatoes, chopped
1 Cup Couscous
1 Cup Boiling Water
1/4 Cup Pine Nuts, toasted
Aceto Balsamico di Modena
Place 1 1/2 cups of water on the stove or in a kettle to boil. In a bowl, mix the olive oil, salt, basil, tomatoes, and couscous until combined. This is what it will look like before you add the water:
Measure out 1 cup of boiling water and pour over couscous mixture. Cover with plastic wrap and let sit for 5 minutes. Meanwhile, heat a dry skillet over medium heat and add pine nuts. Stir occasionally until toasted, being careful not to burn. (Right before they begin to brown you’ll see that they become shiny. Don’t walk away because they go from toasted to burnt very quickly!) Set toasted pine nuts aside.
Lightly fluff the couscous with a fork, adding toasted pine nuts. Drizzle aceto balsamico over the top. This may be eaten immediately, but it also is very nice as a room temperature dish.