For the Love of Vinaigrette
I remember the first time I had it — the sherry vinaigrette from a restaurant in Cambridge — and I was in love. The zesty tang, paired with an emulsified texture that clings perfectly to lettuce, led me to (previously unheard-of) salad seconds. Nowadays, my cabinet is full of vinegars, and I get excited by gifts of specialty olive oils. Salads are a staple of my lunches, helping me pretend that my diet is very healthy.
Much of this salad-love emerged during quarantine. With all the days blending together and the passage of time perpetually blurred, many of us are faced with the question, “Am I hungry or am I bored?” If I dress some lettuce and tomatoes with my handy dandy dressing, I won’t feel too guilty if the answer is, “I’m just bored.”
For one reason or another, I long considered vinaigrette to be “fancy.” Perhaps it’s the French name, or the fact that all the high-end restaurants seemed to carry seven or eight different house-made variations. Fortunately, I was wrong! It’s actually incredibly easy to make, as the simplest vinaigrette has only two ingredients: Vinegar, of course, and oil. From there, all sorts of herbs, spices, and emulsifiers can be added.
My basic vinaigrette recipe is based on that original Cambridge vinaigrette, with some modifications inspired by Samin Nosrat’s book, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat. I don’t use numbers or quantities, relying instead on taste and texture. One of Nosrat’s main lessons is taste, taste, taste, throughout the whole process. Salad dressing is no different, so always keep a few spare lettuce leaves handy while preparing vinaigrette.
I start by chopping a shallot very, very, fine (or you could toss it into a food processor, if you’re fancy like that). Toss that shallot into a container with some sherry vinegar and let it sit, or macerate, for ten or so minutes. I generally then follow rough 1:1:1 proportions of olive oil, neutral oil, and vinegar. Add a spoonful of dijon mustard and mix the hell out of it. Finally, I’ve always thought that the dressing is better the next day; when you’re ready to use it, just add a squeeze of lemon to freshen it up and you’re good to go.
Instead of tossing out old or leftover juices and liquids, use them for dressing. Ate the last pickle? Save that pickle juice for a vinaigrette that goes great on grilled fish. Left a bottle of Riesling opened for a day too long? Mix it with oil, mustard, and shallot for an excellent vinaigrette-inspired chicken marinade. Some might think I take this rule too far: upon finishing a small jar of rollmops (Polish pickled herring fillets wrapped around some veggie filling), I saved the leftover fishy oil. It made for a delicious red wine vinaigrette, perfect on a releaf lettuce and dill salad with feta cheese.
Vinaigrettes are an easy way to make your fridge seem more adult while avoiding kitchen waste as much as possible. So until we find a way to make lettuce tasty on its own and avoid excess vinegar in a jar of pickles, I’ll be sticking to my vinaigrettes, thank you.