By Peter Jensen
A handful of chopped shallots is spooned into the blender, followed by a splash of vinegar, a bit of Dijon mustard, some seasonings, then bruuuuum, the motor roars, a steady stream of olive oil is gradually poured in and voila - vinaigrette.
The procedure takes Barry Rumsey, chef-owner of Bicycle restaurant in South Baltimore, less time than boiling an egg, but the results are a marvel. On this particular morning, he’s created pomegranate vinaigrette, a sweet-and-sour accompaniment to an appetizer of arugula and smoked duck breast with caramelized onions and pumpkin seeds.
It seems almost magical that from such common ingredients (perhaps not counting the dollop of Lebanese-made pomegranate molasses he uses as sweetener) something so extraordinary can emerge. Vinaigrette is not only the simplest of sauces; it’s also one of the most useful, the most versatile and the most fundamental, particularly to classic Mediterranean cooking.
“In my own home, we always have vinaigrette with salad,” says Rumsey. ‘And we always make it from scratch. You can’t get that clean flavor of a vinaigrette from a bottle you buy at the store.” The arrival of spring means fresh salad greens are returning, and nothing serves tender leaf lettuce and other seasonal vegetables better than tart vinaigrette. But dressing up a cold salad is not vinaigrette’s only use. The sauce can just as easily serve as a tenderizing marinade, a sauce for grilled fish or chicken, a dip for appetizers and even a way to liven up dessert of poached fruit.
To be a vinaigrette, a sauce need only present a marriage of something acidic - vinegar most commonly - with an oil. The pairing can be emulsified - blended together to a consistent, thickened dressing - or a loose, free-floating collaboration.
How sweet or tart, acidic or strongly flavored is entirely negotiable. Use balsamic vinegar and you have something robust but slightly sweet. Rice vinegar and fresh ginger can produce a delicate Asian flavoring. Depending on the variety you choose, extra-virgin olive oil can be a pleasantly mild or strongly assertive element in the mixture.
“I could write a book on vinaigrette,” says Olivier Andreini, a Swiss-born chef and lecturer in European cooking at the Culinary Institute of America In Hyde. Park, N.Y. “It’s used everywhere.”
Andreini, who lived in Italy’s Tuscany region before coming to the CIA, can tick off the combinations he likes best - a lemon juice and olive oil on grilled fish, an orange juice and olive oil on a cold salad with slices of orange and red onion, a much stronger red-wine vinaigrette on frisee to counter its mildly bitter flavor. And then he’s just warming up on the subject.
The lesson in all these applications, he says, is to pair the food with the vinaigrette. Too often the amateur pours out balsamic vinegar because it’s trendy, but the dark, rich and pungent flavor can easily overpower a delicate baby lettuce and the result would be uninspiring. “The Italians don’t use balsamic vinegar in salad,” Andreini says. “They take expensive stuff like that out of the cupboard once or twice a year. Here it grows so popular, we use it on everything everywhere.”
The marriage of vinegar and oil is far older than contemporary European gastronomy, of course. Historians have traced its use back at least 2,000 years, and it’s likely much older than that, with roots in the Middle East where olive oil cultivation has been traced to 5000 B.C.
But at no time have chefs had such a variety of vinegars and oils available to them. It’s safe to say that the potential vinaigrette combinations - this oil with that acid -have increased astronomically in just the past decade or so.
“There are now so many options and a lot of them are great,” says Nancy, Longo, chef-owner of Pierpoints in Fells Point. “I play around with vinaigrettes all the time.” At Pierpoints, all the salad dressings are homemade and Longo’s tastes run the gamut. She likes citrus flavors, lemon, orange and lime, as well as wine varieties (zinfandel, for Instance) and vinegars infused with fruit such as raspberries. But she is less inclined to use extra-virgin olive oil.
That’s because true extra-virgin oil - derived from the first cold press of olives - can be fairly strong-flavored. She likes that flavor, of course, but not necessarily as the dominant taste in a salad dressing. For dressings, she prefers the more subtle grape seed, or avocado oil, perhaps a little sesame oil or a nut oil like walnut or hazelnut. Sometimes, her first choice is just plain vegetable oil. ”Just as a vinaigrette needs to complement food, the oil needs to complement the vinegar,” says Longo.
Betty Pustarfi, a California-based consultant to the olive-oil industry, agrees that sometimes the best of olive oils for salad dressings are the more delicate and gentle varieties. But how is the consumer to know which one to choose? Unfortunately, the choice isn’t easy, Pustarfl says. She recently began posting reviews of extra-virgin olive oils, imported and domestic (American-made oils represent only 1 percent or so of the market), at a Web site, ww.oliveoilgourmet.com. She classifies them into three groups: aggressive (herbaceous and peppery), midrange (buttery and olivey) and delicate (mild).Labels won’t do you much good, she says, except to reveal the expiration date (she recommends discarding any oil more than 18 months past its harvest). The United States doesn’t require that extra-virgin even be true extra-virgin, only that it be 100 percent olive oil. “Some of the mass-produced stuff is really quite bad,” says Pustarfi. “And the only time you want an aggressive olive oil for vinaigrette might be for a really strong green like arugula or watercress.”
With a proper vinegar and oil selected, the next issue is how much to use of each. The classic recipe for vinaigrette calls for between a 3-to-1or 4-to-1 ratio of oil to vinegar (less oil for a less-acidic vinegar). That is considered ideal for emulsion - too little oil and the chemistry doesn’t work.
But nowhere is it written on stone that a vinaigrette must be emulsified. The process is ideal for keeping flavors married - an emulsion is simply a mixture of liquids that don’t normally combine (the vinegar is suspended as tiny droplets in the oil). But many chefs opt for a “broken” vinaigrette so that a salad, for instance, becomes more varied - one bite vinegary, the next less so.
“We like to finish the plate with a broken vinaigrette. It’s a sharp look - and something you probably wouldn’t have seen 10 years ago,” says Tom Devine, executive chef of Linwood’s and Due In Owings Mills.
Devine and other chefs say they’ve also tried to cut back on the amount of oil in a vinaigrette. Devine’s dressings are often about a 2.5-to-1 ratio. Longo says she’s made some that are as low as 1-to-1 because she likes the sharp flavor of vinegar. “Too much oil gets greasy,” says Devine. “It’s usually best to start with a 2-to-1 ratio and then adjust as needed.”
Linda Dannenberg, author of “Perfect Vinaigrettes: Appetizers to Desserts (Stewart, Tabori & Chang Inc., 1999, $19.95), notes that the oil and vinegar can serve as merely the base of the sauce. The extras that can be added are endless. But one of the most commonly added (aside from salt and pepper) is mustard, often Dijon. “When you use a fine Dijon, it also helps with the emulsion,” says Dannenberg, who frequently writes on French cooking. “The more grainy kind [of mustard] won’t be so delicate but might work with potato salad or something like that.”
Dannenberg recommends two recipes from her book as can’t-miss hits. The first is a country French classic made with shallots and parsley, the other is made with lemon juice and crème fraiche, a lighter flavor that is ideal for a salad after a rich main course.
After spending weeks researching and experimenting with vinaigrettes, she says she remains surprised that the process intimidates so many home cooks. It is “incredibly simple,” she says and healthful because a little bit goes a long way. “People don’t know how easy it is to prepare,” says Dannenberg, who lives outside New York. “I’ve been to so many parties where a salad is served with an atrocious dressing. That’s one reason I decided to write a book. It astounds me that people don’t have confidence in their own ability to make a vinaigrette.”
On most nights, the Bicycle’s Rumsey makes a very simple vinaigrette for a 5 p.m. family dinner in the apartment above his restaurant. In the bottom of a wooden salad bowl, he puts a little bit of white-wine vinegar, a quarter teaspoon of mustard, a pinch of salt and pepper and then whisks in the oil. His children, including a 2-year-old and 8-year-old, love it.” Everyone is different in their tastes,” says Rumsey. “But that’s the great thing about vinaigrette -you can be as creative as you want”
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