La Vinaigrette: All dressed up
La sauce vinaigrette or salad dressing is such a basic thing I hardly dare dedicate a post to it. And yet, it adds so much flavor and zing to my daily consumption of salad leaves, root veggies and crudités that it seems worthy of mention.
‘Poireaux vinaigrette’ was probably my first encounter with the humble sauce. So simple, yet so delicious: the leeks cooked to a fondant perfection, served at room temperature under several spoons of vinaigrette that puddled in the dish to be ‘sauced’ with crusty bread.
My beau-père would always make his own vinaigrette for the salad traditionally served in France after the main dish and before the cheese: usually with shallots and red-wine vinegar. It tended to be fairly strong stuff – beware the roof of your mouth – but that was needed to dress the stiff, crisp leaves of batavia and escarole that my belle-mère preferred. It also had a cleansing effect that prepared the palate and aided the digestive system in making room for the cheese – the stinky star of the meal for my husband’s family who hailed from Normandy, home of the camembert.
Other than special occasions like the year-end holidays, we rarely sit down to a full meal in the French tradition these days – appetizer, main dish, salad, cheese and dessert. I, along with my waistline, am grateful for this, as it was always hard going. You roll away from the table ready for nothing more than a nap.
Now, without further ado, my easy-peasy recipe for making even a dull salad sing.
My house vinaigrette is made of walnut oil and cider vinegar. I love the subtle flavor that it brings to just about every kind of salad, although originally I made it to accompany my favorite combination of endives, walnuts and roquefort cheese. It also works extremely well with cubes of apple and a harder cheese like Conté or Beaufort.
- Walnut oil – l’huile de noix
- Dijon mustard – Make sure you get plain Dijon and not the kind with the added mayonnaise
- Cider vinegar – ‘Maille’ really is the best
- Salt & pepper
I haven’t listed quantities as it really depends on how much you’re making and how ‘edgy’ you like your dressing. Personally, I tend to go for a 3-1 oil-to-vinegar ratio, but I cheat by adding a bit of warm water to top up the oil – it lightens both the calories and the cost. Walnut oil is rather expensive, so if you’re on a budget, you may wish to substitute canola although I recommend you keep at least half walnut for the flavor. It can also be hard to find in North America (or it was the last time I looked — 20 years ago!)
Pour a little vinegar into a bowl and mix with a heaping spoonful of mustard. Add the oil gradually, stirring constantly to create an emulsion. Season. Top up with 1-2 tablespoons of hot water. Stir or shake (if using a salad shaker – these babies are great for measuring and for storage).
The wonderful thing about vinaigrette is that you can do so many different things to it according to your whim. Whether you use red-wine vinegar, white or red balsamic or sherry vinegar; olive, walnut or a neutral oil like canola.
- Add a bruised clove of garlic and let it slowly release its power over several hours or days
- Finely chop some shallots or red onions
- Add a handful of coarsely chopped herbs – parsley, tarragon, basil, mint
- A few tablespoons of yoghurt turns the vinaigrette into a creamier salad dressing
- A spoonful of honey will soften the vinegar if too vinegary
I never buy bottled salad dressing anymore – who needs the additives? If I haven’t got the few minutes it takes to make a dressing, I’d rather just toss in a little balsamic and oil.
As for the salad, this one was a kitchen sink version based on what I had on hand: lucky for me it was Parma ham, conté, walnuts, mushrooms and avocado. Oh, and a bit of lettuce, or ‘salade’ as it’s called here.
La vie est belle, non?
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