The most outrageous area of the grocery store is not the frozen section, nor the canned section, nor even the gross pre-made foods section. I am happy to partake of certain kinds of frozen or canned produce in the wintertime (they are usually better than fresh, when out of season), and I have been known to buy whole rotisserie chickens, theoretically to turn the carcass into stock, but really to gorge on heavily salted flesh for two days straight. No, the most frustrating and worthless aisle, the one from which no self-respecting adult should ever purchase anything, under absolutely any circumstances, is the salad dressing aisle.
There is no greater substantiation of the international reputation of American home cooking than pre-bottled salad dressing. A simple vinaigrette, like a classic balsamic, has like three ingredients—not one of which goes bad—and a superior version can be made at home for a small fraction of the price in about fifteen seconds. To save those fifteen seconds, Americans will sacrifice money, flavor, and, frankly, our dignity, and buy pre-made garbage. This is not always our fault! Sometimes we have been raised on these dressings, and sometimes the tv chefs can make them seem difficult. Whisking? Drizzling a thin stream of oil to emulsify? Lightly macerating shallots? This seems complicated, and unwelcome, given that this dressing is usually going to go on a salad, a dish many of us only grudgingly eat. But no, friends: Salad dressing can be extraordinary.
I love salad dressing, and vinaigrettes in particular. Creamy dressings, like ranch and blue cheese, are immature, inferior condiments; they mask, rather than accentuate, the flavors of vegetables, which are often more subtle and delicate than the big dumb idiot flavors of meats. Use blue cheese dressing on buffalo wings, not on vegetables. A vinaigrette, though, is a beautiful thing. I use them on salads, sure, but also on pretty much everything else: on a stir-fry, on a platter of roasted vegetables, on a sandwich, on oysters or fish. The vinaigrette—at its core, nothing more than an emulsion (a homogeneous mixture) of oil and vinegar—is fantastically flexible; I have yet to find a cuisine that a vinaigrette can't encapsulate.
Making vinaigrettes is a great introduction to cooking. New cooks often aren't quite sure how to season—not because they don't understand the techniques, but because they aren't sure how to taste and adjust. Something like a soup, which may have many many ingredients, can be very hard to season for the inexperienced cook; the knack of knowing when a soup needs butter, or salt, or dried herbs, or stock, is something that comes with time and practice. But a vinaigrette never has more than a few ingredients, and can thus serve as a cook's version of dissecting a worm: It's all pretty simple in there.
The key to a great vinaigrette is to capture several different flavors at once: something sour, something sweet, something savory, something fatty, and usually something spicy. An inexperienced cook can play around, adding more salt, more oil, more vinegar, more spice, more whatever, tasting and re-tasting until it seems right. This is how you become a good cook, not by reading things; cookbooks are dumb, this column is dumb, I am personally very dumb.
The most important tool for making vinaigrettes is a small glass container with a lid, which I got in a large collection of glass containers just like this one. When buying these, make sure to get glass—plastic is definitely going to kill us all one of these days—and make sure it says "oven safe" on it. These tupperware-type glass containers are MAGIC. I use the big ones for baking bread, the medium-sized ones for quick-pickling, and the little ones are my favorite; I use them for vinaigrettes. Here are some recipes.
Uncle Dan's Spicy Southwest Vinaigrette: Take your small tupperware, fill it up about a third of the way with olive oil or a neutral oil like grapeseed, and sprinkle in a bunch of ground cumin, ground turmeric, and the chile powder of your choice, at a ratio of roughly 2:4:1. (Not chili powder, that garbage that comes in packets that's designed for lousy versions the dish called chili: I'm talking about some kind of dried chile that's been ground into a powder. I use chile de arbol powder from New York's best spice shop, Kalustyan's.) Put the lid on and shake loosely to combine, then remove the lid and place your glass tupperware right on the burner. Yeah, right on it! Turn the burner on the lowest setting and stand over it; it will burn quickly if you're not careful. Wait until little bubbles start forming at the edges, and notice that there is an OUTRAGEOUSLY GOOD aroma emanating from this tiny tupperware. As soon as it smells incredible, which should only take a minute or two, turn the heat off and walk away. It has to cool down before you can add any other ingredients, otherwise it will angrily spit hot oil at you. Once cool, add about a half to three quarters as much apple cider vinegar as oil, and a squeeze of honey. To mix, don't bother stirring: just put the lid back on (SECURELY), and shake vigorously, which will emulsify better than any whisk (properly trained chefs will tell you to blend everything besides the oil, then slowly dribble in the oil while whisking. This is boring. If you're going to serve it right away, fuck it, just shake it all up). Too oily? Add more vinegar. Too sour? Add more honey. When it's done it should have a bunch of flavors all balanced just right: smoky, spicy, savory, sweet, sour. I like to use this vinaigrette on a slaw: Take a big bowl, dump a bag of broccoli slaw in (cabbage works well too, but I like broccoli slaw more; it can be found at Trader Joe's), a bunch of raw corn (fresh in summer, canned all other times), black beans, feta cheese, and either fresh cilantro or cilantro pesto. Let sit overnight if possible for all the flavors to get friendly.
Variations: Want something a bit more autumnal? Do the same thing as the above, but replace the southwest spices with pumpkin-pie spices: cinnamon, clove, nutmeg. Use on a salad of raw apples, roasted squash, beet greens, and candied walnuts (which you can make, but don't bother if you live near a Trader Joe's). Or something vaguely Indian? Replace spices with a madras curry mix and use lemon juice instead of cider vinegar. Use it over any ordinary green salad or over roasted sweet potatoes and cauliflower.
Thai and Vietnamese flavors take very well to vinaigrettes as well. Here's one I use for cold noodle salads a lot: Take a frozen knob of ginger, grate into your little glass tupperware. Add in rice wine vinegar, a little soy sauce, a little sambal oelek (chili-garlic paste), a little fish sauce, some brown sugar, some neutral oil (grapeseed, but use less than you would with western vinaigrettes), and a little bit of peanut butter. Pop on the lid and shake vigorously. Serve with cold noodles, raw or pickled vegetables (cucumber, daikon or other radish, carrot, bean sprouts), some cubed tofu or chicken, crushed peanuts, and cilantro. Alternately, toss with the non-noodle ingredients and serve in a hoagie roll for a sort of mutant Thai banh mi.
Variations: For a more Japanese take, try a miso vinaigrette. Combine a spoon of miso (I like white best for this one), rice vinegar, a couple drops sesame oil, sambal oelek, soy sauce, and a neutral oil, and shake vigorously. Serve over any crisp vegetables, either raw or lightly stir-fried.
Assuming you have some pesto in your freezer, which you should, how about an herb vinaigrette? Toss any kind of pesto into tupperware with a little extra olive oil, lemon juice, and maybe some crushed red pepper flakes and/or honey. Any kind of pesto vinaigrette would be great over warm boiled potatoes, as sort of a quick fancy potato salad, but a sweet-ish basil pesto vinaigrette is especially great over a fruit-heavy salad of greens (I like purslane for this), halved grapes, and pickled shallots.
Vinaigrettes might seem intimidating or not worth the trouble, but, in order: they are not, and they are. They are an introduction to sauce-making, a palette to explore the arts of balancing flavor, and pretty much any dish can be improved with the addition of one. The basic combination of fat and sour can be expanded to so much more, to a sauce that hits every single flavor receptor on your tongue—and it can be as simple or as complicated as you want. Never buy vinaigrette. Always make it.
Photo by Nicole Susanne