Making balsamic syrup out of lemons

As a thank you gift, one of my personal chef clients gave me a bottle of balsamic syrup. I had surprisingly mixed feelings upon receiving it. Of course I was grateful to be acknowledged with such a thoughtful gesture. I was also excited to incorporate the syrup into my cooking. Though I love balsamic vinegar and use it liberally in sauces, dressings, marinades, chilies, stews and soups, I was looking forward to experimenting with the concentrated sweetness and thick texture of the syrup.

The next feeling was a complex one. I remembered an electrifying dish using balsamic syrup I learned to make about 15 years ago. Simultaneously, I began to get a stomachache. Not because I didn't like the dish, but because I abhorred the woman who taught me to make it. She was the owner of this new little fancy Caribbean-influenced restaurant and had just come from "the City" to make her debut in our funky college town in Western Massachusetts.

I'd only been working about a week as her pantry chef, making sauces, dressings, garnishes and finicky things like homemade, hand-cut, fish-shaped saltines. She liked to come in around 11 am, after I'd been working about 3 hours, to drink a Bloody Mary to cure her daily hangover. She would fight loudly with the sous-chef (who used to be her boyfriend) in front of everyone. These things I could attribute to the interesting flaws of a talented foodie (which she was), but it was the way she treated her underlings that I could not accept.

First I witnessed her telling a cheerful Hispanic dishwasher not to "ever, ever" talk to her directly. Within a few days, I overheard her call a waitress stupid to a customer <em>right in front of her</em> as if she wasn't there for not knowing how to use the tare button on a scale. Though I loved the work and the break from evening saute work at the previous restaurant I'd been at for five years, I couldn't stand this woman so I gave my notice and left.

But not without learning to make this incredible eggplant sandwich with balsamic syrup, which I vow to start making again, now that I've remembered it. First you've got to make a balsamic reduction recipe. Take about 3 cups of good balsamic vinegar, bring it to boil in a heavy sauce pan, then simmer it till it's reduced to 3/4 of a cup and thickly coats a wooden spoon. Next take an Italian eggplant and slice it as thin as possible (with a meat slicer or a sharp cheese slicer or even a carbon steel y-shaped veggie peeler). You'll have a tall stack of papery slices.

Heat a flat top grill or large cast iron pan on medium. When it's good and hot, cook the slices on the dry surface till they start to float off. Gather them with a pair of tongs and put them in a bowl. Repeat with the rest of the slices. When they're all done, add enough syrup to coat and stir them well. You'll have a sticky wad. Using tongs, stuff this into a loaf of ficelle sliced along the length but not all the way through. Let sit for one hour and then eat. A fascinatingly good sandwich!

Though she was just about the worst employer I've ever had, that woman gave me a culinary education on two fronts: the opportunity to stand up for what I believe in and the chance to try that taste bud-expanding balsamic syrup. For this I am grateful.

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