Not all salad dressings are equal, and the ways they differ can be important and altogether unexpected. While quality matters, I am referring to differences that run deeper and are perhaps more significant: there are dressings that empower us, and there are those that undermine our ability to think and do for ourselves. That’s a lot to claim about so small a dish. Let me explain.
Over the years, I’ve enjoyed spending time in Italy, where salad is served daily in every sort of restaurant. Alongside bowls of undressed greens, four ingredients are placed on the table: extra-virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper. The last two are in mills so you can grind them yourself. The offering of these ingredients is based on two underlying assumptions. First, that anyone big enough to eat a salad is also big enough to dress it–without measuring spoons and without a recipe. And second, that our personal preferences vary.
The power to dress a salad–that is, the power to choose and do for oneself–is granted and taken daily. Implicit in the granting is a message so ennobling that it’s worth pausing to consider: you can do this; without a recipe, you can dress a salad using ingredients that are simple and real, and you can make it taste good. You have that ability.
How different salads are for most of us, having lost much of our self reliance in the kitchen, along with the conviction that we are capable of preparing simple and delicious fare. It is not too strong to say that this is emblematic of the larger ways, in the realm of cooking, that we have let our power go, giving it to an industry that generally has profit, rather than our well being, as its motive. It is an industry that has reduced personal choice to an array of inferior bottled dressings.
Making a good vinaigrette is a worthwhile step toward self reliance. It is so easy and takes so little time that I wonder how we’ve been persuaded to spend money on bottled dressings that cost more and are comprised of mostly poor-quality oils and artificial ingredients.
The concept of a vinaigrette is as simple as combining a fat with an acid, and the ways you can then embellish it are almost endless. You can vary your choice of oil–from neutral to intense, or fruity to peppery. You can alternate vinegars, choosing red wine, balsamic, sherry, or a different acid altogether like orange or lemon juice. And you can experiment with texture, making your vinaigrette thin or, if you prefer, creamy like mayonnaise. For everyday use, you might rely on a standard recipe of vinegar and oil, combined with shallots, mustard, salt and pepper. You can also add fresh herbs for color and flavor.
As you embark upon making your own vinaigrette, keep in mind that quality and proportion matter most. You will want to use a fine fresh oil, delicious vinegar, and good sea salt. A standard ratio is three or four parts oil to one part acid. Also remember that vinaigrette can be prepared in the moment, or made a day ahead to give the flavors a chance to meld.
Vinaigrette is, most of all, a can-do creation that allows you to imprint your preferences and personality onto everyday dishes. It asks so little and gives so much, and I’ll illustrate this point by concluding with a story about my six-year-old daughter, Rebecca.
One day, when Rebecca was about four years-old, I asked her to help me finish making a vinaigrette, the one I toss with almost every salad I make. I needed someone else to taste it. It turns out that Rebecca has an impeccable palate, which I do not. She seasoned and finished it so beautifully that I would no longer dream of making this vinaigrette without her. It has become Rebecca’s signature dressing. She makes it for company. People ask her for the recipe and for advice on duplicating her results in their own kitchens. All this at the age of six, and from a child who doesn’t give a whit about cooking.
That’s the beauty of vinaigrette: it allows even a six-year-old to sparkle and shine. If you let it, it will work its magic for you, too.
Copyright Ellen Arian, Ellen’s Food & Soul