Last week I returned from a short overnight trip, and as is my habit I had a friend stay at my house to sleep with the cat and make sure the dogs don’t miss a beat while I’m gone. It’s a great deal for both of us; I have peace of mind, she has quiet time sans kids, but the big bonus (according to her) is that she gets to eat my food. Just for the record I cook, a lot, and generally have pretty great leftovers. After being away even for short trips, a cup of tea and a little kitchen time is how I ground myself and reconnect. So while I was waiting for the kettle to boil, I took a peek in the fridge. I know my fridge intimately, and when something doesn’t belong, it stands out. Like a sore thumb. I stared in mild disbelief at a bottle of store-bought salad dressing. Nothing all natural about this particular suspect—rather it’s a gunky, thick orange substance, with more than one ingredient I cannot pronounce. I take the orange yuck to the sink and quickly pour the offending substance down the drain, rinse the bottle with hot soapy water and then set to work. Out comes the cutting board, whisk and bowl. A chopped shallot here, a squeeze of lemon, a pinch of sea salt and a clip of just green thyme from outside the back door. Whisk in some bright green olive oil, taste, add a drop of white vinegar. Carefully pouring the fragrant lemony liquid into the clean bottle is all it takes to feel at home once again, and make everything right in my world.
I make lots of assumptions about people when it comes to cooking—it’s one of the casualties of a life spent in the kitchen. And as you’d suspect, I am reminded quite regularly that not everybody whisks or chops, nor do they know how easy it is to do lots of things, like dressing fresh salad greens or warm new potatoes or asparagus with two or three ingredients that will make them sing. Making a vinaigrette—or salad dressing as we knew it as kids—is a kitchen fundamental.
The rules are very simple and forgiving. There are lots of exceptions, but the basics are: 1 part acid to 3 parts oil, a pinch of salt and pepper, and Bob’s your uncle. I usually use extra virgin olive oil, but a high quality vegetable oil is fine, and acid of choice depending on the greens or vegetables. You can add any combination of fresh herbs, garlic, shallots or chives, and then some.
Simple. That’s it. All there is to it. If your taste buds are different—you might actually prefer 1 part acid to 2 parts oil—it’s your choice; experimant and taste to learn your preference.
- fresh-squeezed citrus juice (Meyer lemons are sweet and delicious, plain lemons are fine, key limes or limes, tangerine, grapefruit, etc.)
- sherry vinegar (splurge on this)
- red or white wine vinegar
- champagne vinegar
- apple cider vinegar
- rice wine vinegar
- balsamic vinegar (balsamic vinegar is intense and strong and comes in gradations of sweetness—taste it first and use it sparingly, adjusting amounts to taste)
- olive oil (extra virgin or light, or a mixture)
- canola or vegetable oil
- sunflower oil
- nut oils like walnut or hazelnut (strong nut flavor—splurge on good ones and use judiciously)
- toasted sesame oil (use only a drop or two in Asian-inspired salads)
- finely chopped shallots, scallions, or sweet onion
- minced garlic
- grated ginger (nice in citrus-based dressing on simple green salads)
- chopped herbs like chives, chervil, mint, parsley, thyme, cilantro or basil (mint is especially nice with citrus)
- a tablespoon of coarse, honey or Dijon mustard
- a teaspoon of honey
- a few drops of soy sauce or sesame oil for Asian inspired dressings or salads Add your seasonings, shake it all up together, rinse out one of those old salad or nearly empty mustard jars in the fridge and make it your own. And promise you’ll never buy salad dressing again.
Check your Oil!
A tip here—taste the oil. Oils are delicate and volatile—heat, air and light are its enemies. Smell your oil, and taste it. An oil that has gone rancid will have an unpleasant smell and off taste, and it will ruin your food. First cold-pressed and nut oils have distinct tastes and aromas that are reminiscent of their source. Please note that spicy, peppery and bitter flavours of some olive oils are their own attributes and are not a sign of poor quality. Keep small amounts of oil out for everyday use, but store the rest in a cool, dark place. I store my walnut and hazelnut oils in the refrigerator, also sesame and first cold pressed oils. Experts recommend storing oil at 57 degrees Fahrenheit, the temperature of a wine cellar. Olive oil will keep well if stored in a sealed container in a cool, dark cupboard for about one year.