As I mentioned last week, I find it a lot easier to serve a salad with our dinner – either as a first course or as a side dish – if I have the dressing already made, waiting in the fridge, and ready to be poured.
I usually keep a variety of homemade salad dressings on hand, so over time , I’ll share some of my favorites. And I’ll also include how to make – hands down! – the most quick and easy homemade mayonnaise – a great base for many dressings - I’ve ever found.
In my kitchen, I rely on a basic vinaigrette a lot. It really is a workhorse…great on salads but it also does double duty as a marinade or for a light sauce to pour over freshly cooked veggies while there still pipping hot. The delightful tang of the dressing is a nice change of place from a topping of butter and sea salt. I also like to change my vinaigrette up a bit, now and again, varying the ingredients just a bit to give it a whole new unique flavor.
The most common recipe for vinaigrette starts with vinegar, oil, and mustard. The ratio I like the most is approximately 4 parts oil to 1 part vinegar. But this is really a matter of taste and one that I’ve settled on over years of experimentation. Some folks like it a less oily but I’m not one of them. When it comes to olive oil, I’m of the school that more is better.
Since I like to make a full cruet of vinaigrette at a time, I generally use around a 1/4 cup of vinegar and a cup or so of olive oil and about a tablespoon of Dijon mustard (really any mustard will do – just something to work as an emulsifier).
For the vinegar, I generally use one that I make homemade. I’ll share that story another day, but in the meantime, any vinegar will do. I also use apple cider vinegar or sherry vinegar (especially nice) – even balsamic vinegar will do but that tends to make a heavier more robust flavored vinaigrette, not as all-purpose for my needs.
But I Digress…
I want to stop here a minute and share that I am both an intuitive cook and improvisational cook. I cook instinctively, use what I have on hand, and make the best of it. And I rarely measure precisely. The “rarely measure” part is what can be troublesome, especially when I share recipes. But Tamar Adler, author of An Everlasting Meal – Cooking with Economy and Grace, (one of my new favorite books!) shares the following words of reassurance (both for me…and hopefully for those with whom I share “recipes”)…
There is a prevailing theory that we need to know much more than we do in order to feed ourselves well. It isn’t true.
I have always found that recipes make food preparation seem staccato…
…cooking is best approached from wherever you find your self when you are hungry, and should extend long past the end of the page. There should be serving, and also eating, and storing away what’s left; there should be looking at meals’ remainders with interest and imagining all the good things they will become. I have tried to include more of that and fewer teaspoons and tablespoons and cups.
All I can say to this is a loud AMEN! This is my new mantra…fewer teaspoon and tablespoons and cups.
Tamar also shares examples of her philosophy on cooking…
Stale slices of bread should be ground into breadcrumbs, which make a delicious topping for pasta, and add crunch to a salad. Or they must be toasted and broken apart for croutons or brittle crackers, which ask to be smeared with olive paste.
Meals’ ingredients must be allowed to topple into one another like dominoes. Broccoli stems, their florets perfectly boiled in salty water, must be simmered with olive oil and eaten with shaved Parmesan on toast; their leftover cooking liquid kept for the base for soup, studded with other vegetables, drizzled with good olive oil, with the rind of the Parmesan added for heartiness.
This continuity is the heart and soul of cooking.
Again, all I can do is say a resounding AMEN! To me, this is what cooking is all about. Not a list of ingredients that I have on hand but that someone else may not. I want to share my ideas about food, recipes, and cooking as mere suggestions where one can fill in the blanks with what is calling from the their pantry waiting to be incorporated into a satisfying meal.
Forgive me. As I have shared in the past…I digress….terribly at times. (I am an attorney by education. Brevity is not our strong suit. OK, now that I have shared that, this is the one time you will hear me say…’nuff said.)
Getting Back to the Salad Dressings…
Mixing a little bit of vinegar and oil is not – as Emeril Lagasse would say – “rocket science”. Just mix away and see what tastes good to you. My one suggestion – error on the side of the oil. Too much vinegar will have everyone puckering-up!
Usually I start making my vinaigrette by filling a large bowl or measuring cup with the vinegar (I like using a large four cup, pyrex-type measuring cup because it’s easy to whisk all the ingredients together then pour them into the cruet).
Next, I add about a tablespoon of sea salt and a chopped shallot, allowing the salt to dissolve, and the shallot to marinate. If I don’t have a shallot on hand, my fallback is to add a bit of red onion. It works just fine.
And if I’m not up to the job of “fine” chopping an onion…I just grate it. This works like a charm – so easy – creating perfect tiny sized onion bits so as to not overwhelm the dressing or the the one dining on it!
Sometimes at this point, I’ll add a little bit of sweetener because my husband and son tend to like their salad dressings on the sweeter side. I like to use maple sugar which is a bit of a luxury but I don’t use a lot…maybe a tablespoon. Other sweeteners I use are local Austin (Texas) honey, raw cane sugar like Rapadura or Succanat or real maple syrup.
Once the vinegar has had a few minutes to sit, I whisk in the mustard creating a nice base to which I next whisk in the oil. I start out slowly with just a tiny drizzle of oil making sure that it is well emulsified, then drizzle in the rest of the oil – slowly – continuing to whisk the whole time. This can also be done in the food processor – but my right arm wouldn’t get the same workout!
Once everything is nicely emulsified, I give it a quick taste to see if I like the seasoning. At this point, I might add a little extra salt but will also add pepper and some fresh chopped herbs from my garden. My vinaigrette is rarely the same each time because I vary the herbs added depending on what catches my eye. Sometimes rosemary, or thyme, or flat leaf Italian parsley, or oregano, or chives, or basil etc.,…or a mixture. Sometimes I leave out the herbs and add them in fresh when making the salad.
A Few Variations…
This is a wonderful basic all-purpose vinaigrette. But sometimes – and often depending on the season – I like to change the way I make it. Such as now, during the winter months when citrus is so plentiful, I often replace some or all (usually all) of the vinegar with lemon, lime, orange, or even grapefruit juice…or a mixture of some or all of them. Citrus vinaigrette not only tastes good but provides a nice boost of vitamin C – - – just when we need it – - – during cold and flu season.
If I am craving something really creamy, I like to add about a1/4 cup of fresh cream (pasteurized will do too) which I whisk in after I add the oil. This gives the impression that the dressing is mayonnaise-based, without having to make mayonnaise. It’s a bit of shortcut when I feel pressed for time.
Roasted Walnut Oil -
Another twist to this basic vinaigrette – and something I really like because it is a bit decadent – is replacing some or all of the olive oil with roasted walnut oil. The aroma alone makes us all want to inhale our salads the minute they hit the table. And topping the salad with toasted candied walnuts – or pecans (if you live in Texas, like I do) is heavenly. If you’ve not tried roasted walnut oil, you have to do so as soon as you can. It’s a bit of a splurge but well worth it every once and awhile. It’s just luscious.
An Asian Twist -
Finally, one more twist I like to put on my vinaigrette, is to give it an Asian flare. I enjoy cooking with ingredients that are reminiscent of the flavors my husband remembers from his childhood. So for this type of vinaigrette I still use olive oil but I usually add a tablespoon or two of toasted sesame oil. It has a delightful aroma as well as a rich flavor.
I still use a touch of mustard to serve as an emulsifier, but I rely on rice wine vinegar for a lovely gentle flavor – it almost has a touch of sweetness. I find it’s a nice compliment allowing the flavor of the the toasted sesame oil to really shine through. Sometimes, I might also add a touch of soy sauce – maybe a tablespoon – in with the vinegar. And instead of just plain sea salt, I use gomasio – a mixture of sea salt and sesame seeds. Also, a little grated fresh ginger, ginger syrup, or even ginger preserves can add a wonderful intensity of flavor that provides a bit of a pleasant bite.
This Asian variation of the basic vinaigrette is wonderful used as a dressing for julienned carrots and cucumbers. Just toss it all together. So refreshing! And a wonderful accompaniment on the nights I make California rolls.
So That’s It!
So that’s it…vinegar, salt, a bit of shallot or onion (if you have it on hand), maybe a little sweetener, mustard, olive oil, a bit of pepper, and a few herbs if they catch your fancy… and your done.
Let’s eat salad!
Next time I write about salad dressings, I look forward to going a bit retro, sharing some thoughts about my favorite mayonnaise based dressings including Green Goddess!
P.S. I received a great question…If you put your olive oil based salad dressings in the fridge, don’t they become solid? And if so, how do you pour them? To answer – yes, my olive oil based dressings do become solid when refrigerated. So I usually take them out of the fridge first, as I start to prepare my dinner (and salad). They often “thaw” out in time to be poured on the salad once dinner is ready. And if not, I just submerge the bottle in a glass half full of warm water. Works like a charm!