Highly Adaptable Recipes: The Vinaigrette

Highly Adaptable Recipes: The Vinaigrette

For CSA subscribers, having a mental catalog of adaptable recipes is key to cooking with confidence and ease and without waste. In this recurring column, I'll share some formulas for making use of CSA vegetables that I find particularly useful as I approach my share. Keeping a few basic recipe formulas in mind helps me approach my share without needing to run to the store for too many extra ingredients and allows me to adapt to the whims of the day.

Since we're receiving lots of spring greens, I thought I'd start with a bit on making homemade salad dressings. Although it's tempting to turn to the bottled stuff, finding dressings without a bunch of additives, fillers, and stabilizers is difficult and expensive. There are some great salad dressings out there, but why buy bottled when homemade is easy and affordable? 

 Louisa Shaifa's Radish, Rhubarb, and Strawberry Salad from  The New Persian Kitchen  features a balsamic vinaigrette with cracked black pepper.

Louisa Shaifa's Radish, Rhubarb, and Strawberry Salad from The New Persian Kitchen features a balsamic vinaigrette with cracked black pepper.

Vinaigrette dressings are very easy and almost infinitely flexible as long as you start with a basic ratio.

1 part acid: 3-4 parts oil.

The ratio lets you adjust the amount of dressing you need to the supplies on hand or to the number of plates you're serving. 4 parts oil is more common and yields a slightly better emulsion with more body, but I tend to prefer the lower-fat, punchier 3 part variation. Much more acid than that, and you won't be able to whisk it all together without some help. If emulsion is a problem, adding an emulsifier such as an egg yolk, a smashed garlic clove, or dollop of Dijon mustard will bring everything together. 

The components: 

Acid: Your choice of acid is going to have the most impact on the flavor of your dressing, so choose wisely. Balsamic vinegar, sherry vinegar, red and white wine vinegar all produce excellent vinaigrettes with distinct flavors. Balsamic and red wine vinegar tend to be a bit sweeter, while sherry and white wine vinegar are a bit sharper. Fresh-squeezed citrus is a brighter, fresher alternative as well. 

Oil: I tend to stick to olive oil since it's tasty and affordable, but milder oils such as grape seed oil work well in some applications, too. Avocado, hazelnut, and walnut are pricier oils, usually used in tandem with a neutral oil to give a dressing a more distinct character.

Seasonings and emulsifiers: Additions such as garlic, mustard, and egg yolks are great for adding body and flavor to your vinaigrette.

Garlic works well raw or roasted, depending on the flavor you prefer. If your garlic is a bit strong for you, mince it up and let it sit for 10-15 minutes before adding it; the breathing time will mellow the sharpness some. Garlic scapes are great in salad dressing, too, since their garlic flavor is so mild and fresh.

Mustards, both grainy and smooth, are great in vinaigrettes, too. They work surprisingly well in dressings for bold greens, including mustard greens.

An egg yolk will help hold your dressing together while adding richness and body. It's a staple in a classic Caesar dressing, but works well in other applications, too.

Salt, sugar, and pepper are all fine additions to dressings, but should be added very gradually. 

Herbs also add character to dressings. Leafy herbs such as cilantro, mint, and parsley add a bright, grassy flavor to the dressing and color it a pretty fresh green. 

Technique

Generally, whisking works well enough to bring all your ingredients together. A blender will help keep the emulsion together longer if the dressing needs to sit for a while or travel. In a pinch, a mason jar with a lid will also do the trick quite well. When possible, start with the acid and any emulsifiers you have, then slowly add a thin stream of oil (or if you can't balance all that with only two hands, add a little oil, whisk until incorporated, repeat). Slowly introducing the oil to the acid will help you to achieve a stronger emulsion than would dumping all the ingredients in at once. With a blender, this is less of a concern.

A few of my favorite dressing combinations to get you started:

Red wine vinaigrette: This one resembles the dressing found on Greek salads. 1 part red wine vinegar, 3-4 parts olive oil. Spice it up with some minced garlic and herbs--use oregano if you want something of a Greek salad dressing. Depending on your tastes, you may need a tiny pinch of sugar.

Roasted garlic balsamic vinaigrette: Here the garlic will work as an emulsifier, so you can use a little less oil than you would normally need. 1 part balsamic to 3 parts olive oil is where I start. Blend that up with a couple cloves of roasted garlic and you've got yourself a quick salad dressing without a bunch of additives.

Olive oil Lemon vinaigrette: Whisk together 1 part lemon juice to 3 or 4 parts olive oil. Toss in a pinch of salt or a squeeze of honey, depending on your tastes and the sweetness of the lemon.

Mustard vinaigrette: 1 part sherry vinegar, 3 parts olive oil. Add Dijon mustard to taste, beginning with a small amount and increasing until you find the balance and consistency you like. I usually do something like 1 tablespoon vinegar, 3 tablespoons oil, 1-2 teaspoons strong Dijon mustard. Switch out the vinegar for a milder one and add honey to achieve a homemade honey-mustard dressing.

Sherry-balsamic vinaigrette: For this dressing, I usually divide the vinegar portion between sherry and balsamic vinegar. Balsamic has a nice body and sweetness, but for me is a little too syrupy on its own; by contrast, sherry vinegar's sharp and thin, but perhaps a bit too aggressive on its own for most applications. So, I usually use 1:3 ratio of sherry to balsamic (or something like that) and then whisk in 3 times as much oil as I have vinegar. (For example: 1 teaspoon sherry vinegar, 3 teaspoons balsamic, and 12 teaspoons of olive oil.) Whisk the oil in slowly, then add salt, pepper, or other seasoning to taste.