Dress it up

My niece Katie loves salads. I think she likes to crunch through one every day, if not every lunch and dinner.

Last Sunday, I served her a mix of red and boston lettuces, frisée, sunflower sprouts, sliced mango, red peppers, and lots of chopped fresh coriander. IMG_6801

She liked it and gave me further compliment by asking, “What’s in the dressing, Aunt Maddy?”

I get asked that a lot and am shocked that more household fridges aren’t crowded with as many little jars of homemade vinaigrettes as mine – especially when you taste the difference between your own creation and some lousy, store-bought facsimile.

Here’s the basic template, which starts with an empty lidded jar.

Fill it with this:

IMG_77811 shallot, finely chopped

½ tsp Dijon mustard

1 tsp maple syrup

2 tbsp red wine vinegar

½ cup extra virgin olive oil

Big pinch salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Screw on the lid and make sure it’s on tight so you can shake it like crazy (a.k.a. emulsify). Before you pour it on a salad, dip in a tasting spoon or a leaf of lettuce and taste it. Consider if you’ve got the balance right and add a little bit more oil, seasoning, sweetness or acid to find the exact flavour you are looking for.

Making vinaigrettes and salad dressings is a great place to flex your culinary muscles and develop your palette. The contents of your fridge and cupboards are your personal playground and it’s time to start romping through it, pouring, mixing and tasting.Flowerpetalsalad

Abide by a simple rule. Add one part souring agent (be it vinegar, citrus juice, pureed fruit, yogurt or even tamarind) to four parts oil. If it has too much pucker power, you can dilute it with more oil. Sometimes all it takes is a little sugar, honey or maple syrup to balance things out. While it is called a vinaigrette you don’t want it to taste too sour.

Watch out for lemon and lime juice. Both are potent additions compared to their milder cousins, grapefruit and orange.

Vinegars vary in acidity too. That’s why many salad lovers like the sweet, subtlety of balsamic over the bludgeon power of white or cider vinegar.

Leonardi Oro Nobile IMG_1817is a white balsamic produced using white grape must. It has a fruity, mildly acid aroma that will caress any vinaigrette into a work of art. I bought mine at Olive and Olives, a fine olive oil emporium that suddenly closed its Queen St East and Market St Toronto locations last month.

IMG_1816Another of my current favourites is a Portuguese red wine vinegar produced by Herdade do Esporao. I’ve found it at Metro stores.

Extra virgin olive oil is the first oil I turn to for my basic vinaigrette. It has a rich, definable flavour compared to canola, sunflower and safflower which offer a clean slate to build more flavours upon. If you’re making something fruity, like a raspberry or mango dressing, turn to these. Ditto for a spicy dressing with cayenne or chipotle.

Nut oils, like walnut or hazelnut, offer a rich deep flavour that can dominate so add just a little, say a quarter, to the overall oil content. Nut oils beautifully temper bitter greens like arugula or endive.

Shallots offer a great base, since their flavour sits halfway between onions and garlic, the latter which easily overwhelms a dressing.

IMG_1818I find herbs never add as much punch to a vinaigrette as I’d like and rather than pour over the greens gracefully, they clump. But I’d never say no to finely chopped chives, especially now, as they poke out of the spring soil and are as sweet as sin.

Make a vinaigrette this week. I hope Katie does.