Currant affairs

The backs and bin bottoms of refrigerators are known hazmat zones: difficult-to-reach, easy-to-ignore regions where spontaneous composting occurs. Most of us, I suspect, have at one time or another fished a plastic bag from these sepulchral depths and wondered what once fresh but long neglected foodstuff could have produced the black-green goo inside.

The far reaches of kitchen cabinetry don’t generally host this sort of putrefaction, but they are venues for the forgotten bottle of this and overlooked box of that all the same. A few weeks ago, while urgently trolling my clutter of bottles for some mild vinegar — a key ingredient in Mark Bittman’s excellent recipe for vindaloo (see his indispensable volume The Best Recipes in the World for details) — I came across a dusty bottle of Vilux vinaigre de cassis, which I’d bought on sale years ago because … it was on sale.

"Cassis" means "black currant" in French — ergo, we are dealing with black currant vinegar, which is a lovely pale purple color (like that of weak pinot noir) and has a rich, fruity flavor. I’d occasionally made vinaigrettes with the Vilux, but over time the fullish bottle drifted toward the back of the shelf, supplanted by flashier or easier-to-reach newcomers, including a series of bottles of rice wine vinegar. Usually I use rice wine vinegar when making Bittman’s vindaloo (I also use chicken instead of pork; please don’t tell him), but I had managed to run out of it and further managed not to get more in time for dinner. So: a wing, a prayer, and vindaloo with black currant vinegar.

The result was surprisingly satisfying — even better, I thought, than the usual version. Emboldened (and still without rice wine vinegar), I used the Vilux to make a sweet chile sauce for the dunking of lumpia. (A good recipe for this simple condiment can be found in Taste of Laos by Daovone Xayavong.) Again, the result was notably better, with the vinegar’s fruit adding some richness and helping to take the harsh, hot edge from the cayenne.

Naturally this small success set me to searching the nether reaches of the pantry for unsung treasures. Among the archaeological finds: A jar of Harry and David’s muffaletta, doubtless a gift from someone years ago. Strange little cans filled with herb and spice blends, with directions in Italian or perhaps Armenian. No vindaloo mix; that’s still a DIY.

Paul Reidinger