I have a new favorite cookbook. Ha. I know I could say that every week. This new book of mine is titled The Preservation Kitchen, written by Chicago chef Paul Virant. Among his many accomplishments is a brush with Christine Ferber, the famed French doyenne of the jam kingdom (and maybe the entire preserving kingdom) and a legend who creates her own terroir. One of the sections of the book covers so-called “aigre-doux,” which means sour and sweet in French, or as we would reverse it, sweet and sour. (Says something about our priorities or bad habits?) Aigre-doux is a complex sauce. It has the power to transform food experience because of its complexity and its acidic character. Wine mellows vinegar and sugar, and flavors flow from vegetables and fruits as well as herbs and spices. Ferber has written a book about aigre-doux and terrines, not translated from the French. I haven’t read it, so I am relying on Virant.
I’ve made sweet and sour sauces before, and love my kick-ass caponata agridolce (the Italian version of sweet and sour eggplant and other veggies). But it never dawned on me to can an aigre-doux in a water bath, the chief way I preserve vegetables and fruits in pickles and jams. Wow. Now what? Brave new world. There are so many great ideas in this book, I hardly knew where to start.
Since we’re in one of those transition periods between growing seasons, I find that I’m combining the citrus of winter with the first vegetables of spring, the over-wintered storage vegetables with young spring greens. I therefore was inspired to make three citrus-based aigre-doux from Virant’s book. He basically cold-packs and pickles citrus segments in a combination of wine, vinegar and sugar, adding a touch of salt and some spices or herbs. You could just refrigerate the mixture to cure or process it in a water bath canner. I did both. I made 2 pints of mandarin orange aigre-doux in red wine, 2 in white wine (both with peppercorns), and a third with Meyer lemon, thyme and bay leaf. This was a few weeks ago. I normally would wait a month or two before eating but I checked the orange segments and they were wine-colored all the way through, so I figured we could sample.
To turn aigre-doux into a sauce, Virant suggests pureeing the orange segments with the liquid or whisking in a “knob of butter.” The latter is basically a red “beurre blanc,” which involves whisking tiny bits of cold butter into a warm sauce base, emulsifying it. The temperature of the butter is important since it will otherwise melt into the liquid instead of emulsifying. After I pureed the orange segments with the liquid, I decided that the small bits of orange membrane weren’t contributing much. So for the final version, I strained the puree and made a modified beurre blanc, with less butter than typical since I was serving it with greens as well as scallops.
Finally, to get dinner on the table, I assembled gorgeous leaves of red Boston lettuce on a plate (I loved the flowing red tips), and dressed them lightly with aigre-doux liquid (no oranges or butter). On went locally fished sea scallops that had been seared in a little butter and olive oil, and a few spoons full of my version of beurre blanc. Sprinkled with chive blossoms, snippets of garlic chives, and thinly sliced organic kumquats, this was a beautiful and delicious spring supper.
Since I had a little sauce and orange segments left over, I used them in a side salad of cubed beets and kumquats. Pretty and flavorful.
So, what would I do differently in making the aigre-doux? While I thought the result was excellent, the recipe was poorly written for canning since it called for keeping a vinegar solution hot while you performed other tasks, like preparing the jars. Vinegar used in canning and pickling is a major deterrent to bacteria, and it loses its potency when heated. I reduced Virant’s recipe to make 2 versus 5 pints, He runs a restaurant so he can handle volume and I experiment in small batches. I did stick with pints but in the future, I would consider using half-pint jars, so that a single jar can service a single meal. Since I was experimenting with three aigre-doux mixtures as mentioned above, I had all ingredients and the canning kettle and jars ready to go and made them quickly one after the other so that six jars could be processed at once. Here’s the recipe for the orange aigre-doux with red wine. The white wine version used a fruity Austrian white wine and champagne vinegar.
Mandarin Orange Aigre-Doux adapted from Paul Virant
For 2 pints:
4 mandarin oranges, preferably organic and seedless (2 for each pint jar)
1 2/3 c red table wine (I used a California merlot)
2/3 c red wine vinegar
1/3 c sugar
½ tsp Kosher salt
2 tsp black peppercorns (1 tsp per jar)
Prepare the jars for water bath canning by heating them to the boiling point in a large kettle with a rack on the bottom. This takes about 20-30 minutes. Place a small pan of water on the stove, which you will later use to sterilize the lids and soften their rubber rings.
Meanwhile, peel the oranges and separate them into segments, removing the excess pith.
Combine the wine, vinegar, sugar, and salt in a saucepan.
When the jars are ready, turn off the heat under the canning kettle, and remove the jars to the counter. Add the peppercorns and orange segments to the jars.
Place the saucepan with the wine mixture over medium-high heat and bring just to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar and salt. Transfer the liquid to a heat-proof pitcher or measuring cup with a spout, and pour it over the orange segments, leaving ½-inch of head room. Insert a chopstick into the jars to release any air bubbles, and wipe off the rims.
Meanwhile, bring the small pan of water to a boil, turn off the heat and add the jar lids. Remove the lids and dry them, place them on the jars and screw on the bands.
Place the filled jars in the canning kettle, lid on, and bring the water to a boil. Process for 15 minutes after the water returns to a boil. Turn off the heat, remove the lid and let the jars sit for 5 minutes in the water before removing them to a counter to sit, undisturbed, until cool.