Like you, I’ve been doing a lot more cooking at home in the last few months. In addition to the old standards, I’ve been digging into new recipes and sharing tips with friends to keep things interesting.
Vinaigrette dressings, a culinary staple, have taken on an expanded role in what we’re eating. With endless variety, they offer a lot of pizzaz using simple everyday ingredients that are often right at hand.
Chefs will tell you that the secret to memorable cooking is some bright acid to zip up the flavors and sharpen the taste. Without acid, food can be dull, unremarkable, flabby. Vinaigrette can make the difference.
A well-made vinaigrette is the chef’s tool for adding some sparkle to all manner of dishes. This mix of oil and acid (usually vinegar) is more than just a salad dressing. Grains, seafood and vegetables all perk up with a dash of vinaigrette. It can be your secret weapon too.
Alice Waters, proprietor of the renowned Chez Panisse restaurant and pioneer of farm-to-table cooking, discusses vinaigrettes early on in the “Chez Panisse Cafe Cookbook.” “A restaurant is only as good as its simplest green salad,” she writes. “Greens should be dressed with just the right amount of critically-tasted, freshly-made vinaigrette.”
In her basic recipe, Waters uses a three to one ratio of oil to vinegar, plus a garlic clove and salt. With so few components, the quality of the ingredients and the care of preparation is crucial.
Extra virgin olive oil, the highest quality designation, is the most popular choice for vinaigrettes. EVOO, as it’s called, is available from both popular, widely-distributed international brands and expensive artisanal bottlings. A good-quality mid-price will do just fine for vinaigrette.
My niece, Julia Currie, is an avid cook, cooking teacher, and Francophile who lived for a while in Aix-en-Provence. She’s very particular about her vinaigrette. “Start with a Dijon-style mustard.” she insists. Maille, with a little more punch than most brands, is her favorite. Add the vinegar, salt, and pepper next and let them sit for a minute so that all the flavors blend. Slowly stir in the oil or shake vigorously in a clean jelly jar; the mustard will
help it to emulsify.
Jacques Pepin suggests making the vinaigrette in an almost-empty mustard jar. With typical French thrift, he likes to rinse out the last of the mustard with the oil and vinegar.
Julia likes her vinaigrettes pretty sharp with a ratio of one to one (or a little more). One part vinegar to three or so parts of oil is more typical. She makes hers by eye and taste, varying the ratio to accommodate the flavors. Her secret for tasting: dip in a leaf from the salad bowl. If you taste it straight from the jar, the dressing will seem much stronger than it will on the lettuce.
Julia has been known to add some chopped shallots or fresh herbs. She also might substitute lemon juice for the vinegar to add a note of Provençal Sunshine to a salad niçoise. The jar of vinaigrette on her kitchen counter is in everyday play to dress salads, use as a marinade, splash on some grains or drizzle into a soup or stew.
Aromatic sherry vinegar, with its smooth flavor, is her first choice for acid. Slightly sweet white balsamic vinegar is also a regular at Julia’s. Tangy red wine vinegar is preferred for boldly flavored Greek salads. When using a dark balsamic vinegar, she likes to add some minced garlic and a pinch of sugar.
Champagne vinegar makes a lighter dressing for tender young greens. Tarragon vinegar adds an earthy herbal note. Tangy cider vinegar is a classic. When I make a batch of vinaigrette, it always tastes a little more fruity and fresh on the first day when the vinegar is right out of the bottle. It will last at room temperature, but try to use it up in a few days.
Olive oil is Julia’s standard. “The mid-range extra-virgin stuff — Spanish or Greek — is fine.” she confided. With the other strong flavors, this is not the place for a delicate, aromatic, expensive bottling. Sesame, walnut, or other flavored oils can be blended with olive oil to add another dimension. Minced garlic or a crushed whole clove is often added to vinaigrette as are chopped shallots.
Penzeys Spices on Westport Avenue has a Country French Vinaigrette spice blend ($8) that is the Whitman house dressing. With pepper, lemon peel, mustard, tarragon, chives, thyme and rosemary, it’s a flavorful mix that makes a light dressing. Follow the directions to add red wine vinegar and olive oil. I usually put in an extra dollop of Dijon mustard. Penzeys also offers an Italian Oil and Vinegar dressing spice mix.
Easy to make vinaigrettes are handy to have around the kitchen and are a ready source of flavor and zing for lots of dishes. They should be a part of every cook’s standard repertoire.
Frank Whitman can be reached at NotBreadAloneFW@gmail.com.