Balsamic vinegar is everywhere. Thousands of U.S. restaurants, from Bangor to Walla Walla, have jumped on the balsamic bandwagon. Balsamic’s popularity surge can be attributed to its widespread use by culinary masters pursuing something above and beyond the mundane.

Folks in the Medi-terranean have known about the rich, slightly sweet flavor of balsamic vinegar for thousands of years. Back in the day when Italian wine-makers were stomping grapes with their bare feet, balsamic vinegar was used as a tonic to people of prominence.

The historical identity of balsamic vinegar is a tad fuzzy. Sure, it is classified as a so-called “wine vinegar,” though technically it is not. Contrary to popular belief, it is not a wine byproduct, but grape pressings bypassing the fermenting process altogether. The pressings are boiled, and then aged in special wooden casks.  

These days, the robust flavor and ambrosial fragrance of balsamic vinegar is preferred over traditional wine, malt, apple cider or white vinegars used in cooking. Of course, the agreeably piquant condiment has been popularly used as a salad dressing for years. However, balsamic vinegar is not just for salad anymore. It has caught on in the U.S., and restaurants everywhere are enjoying it all over the menu.

According to data provided by Mintel Menu Insights, there has been a 32% increase in non-salad use of balsamic vinegar (from 2005-2008). Chefs have been utilizing the popular vinegar in lieu of cooking wines for sautéing seafood, meats and vegetables. For example, Oklahoma City-based Bellini’s Ristorante and Grill features an appetizer, Ahi Torino, which consists of yellowfin tuna, pan-seared and drizzled with balsamic vinaigrette, served with wasabi and ginger.

There are many variations of balsamic vinegar readily lending themselves to marinades, reductions and gourmet sauces. It has been used to accentuate the sweetness of fresh fruits. Additionally, the Tradizionale form has been known to possess outstanding digestive properties and may even be drunk from a tiny glass after a meal.

For What Ales You

Even the gingerbread man would be proud. Long before Dramamine, Alka-Seltzer and Robitussin, people were treated with a household elixir to relieve motion sickness, upset stomachs and sore throats: ginger ale.  

Ginger beverages have made great strides since those early days, when it was valued for medicinal properties. European texts from the Middle Ages reveal that ginger was a common ingredient for apothecary and gourmand alike.  

The ginger plant has a prolific agricultural history; it is known to have originated in China, eventually making its way throughout most of Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. Ginger is known as an exotic flavoring spice used in cooking, sweets and baking. The potent ginger root juice enhances many Asian dishes, particularly Indian and Chinese recipes.

Ginger provides the kick in sodas, cocktails or as a poor man’s substitute for champagne. Ginger potables are a nutritionally sound option to the soft drinks currently flooding the U.S. beverage market. According to Mintel Menu Insights, there has been a 17% increase in ginger beverage ingredients (2006-2008). Ginger ale has become a staple in bars and on airlines, although it is still seldom found in vending machines.

Golden ginger ale has a distinctive, dark appearance and pungent flavor, while dry ginger ale was originally used as a lighter alternative. The latter was popular as a mixer during the 1920s, eventually replacing the less desirable bite of its predecessor. These days, golden ginger ale is sold regionally, like Alabama’s Buffalo Rock. Mintel Menu Insights cites Schweppes and Canada Dry as the most popular manufacturers of dry ginger ale. Some dry ginger ale varieties include mint, green tea, cranberry and other fruit flavors.

Ginger beer is a vigorous, less carbonated and less sweet fermented beverage. It may contain alcohol, though it is possible to ferment ginger beer in a way as to produce little alcohol. Ginger beer may be mixed with ale to produce a shandy, or with rum to create a refreshing, Caribbean cocktail. The carbonated beverage marketed today as a soft drink is not fermented, thus it contains no alcohol.

The Incredible, Edible Eggplant

While not a typical omelet or huevos rancheros ingredient, when properly cooked, it is a tender and rich vegetable aptly named--because it resembles fowl eggs: the eggplant. (Technically speaking, the eggplant is actually a fruit--a berry, to be precise.)   

The eggplant has been valued through the years for its lustrous, dark purple appearance, in addition to its agreeably bitter taste and spongy texture. The nightshade family of vegetables includes the eggplant, which like its cousin, the tomato, also grows tall on vines. Eggplants typically grow oblong and up to 12in long. The common American eggplant is large, purple and pear-shaped. Other eggplant varieties include Asian, garden, Sicilian, Thai and many more.

The eggplant has versatile cooking properties; it can be baked, broiled, grilled, mashed, charred, stewed, sautéed, roasted, battered and deep-fried. It can even be stuffed with seasoned ground beef, rice or other fillings. It acts like a sponge in its unique capacity to absorb cooking fats, sauces and oils, allowing for rich dishes. Every part of the eggplant is edible; this includes the smooth fruit flesh, the soft seeds and even the skin--no peeling is required.

The nutritional value of the eggplant features a host of vitamins, minerals and vital phytonutrients, which possess potent antioxidant power proven to protect cell membranes in humans.

According to research data provided by Mintel Menu Insights, the overall use of eggplant as a menu item or as an ingredient has increased by 10% from 2005-2008. It is typically found in international dishes like moussaka, baba ghanoush, Parmigiana, chutney and ratatouille. New York City’s famed Annisa restaurant features Spiced Grilled Eggplant served with yogurt and lentils. P.F. Chang’s China Bistro serves Stir-fried Eggplant tossed with scallions in a savory chili pepper sauce.


Mintel Menu Insights tracks menu trends from the nation’s 350 largest chain restaurants, 150 independent restaurants, and top 50 chefs, offering insight into pricing, menu items ingredients, preparations and entirely new menus. For more information, visit www.menuinsights.com or phone 312-932-0600.