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Little vinegar - vinaigrette

“it seems to me that a salad and its dressing are things we should take more or less for granted at a meal, like bread and salt; and not carry on about them.” Elizabeth David

Well I'm going to try and carry on about them. As did she I might say. I found a couple of very lengthy quotes from the lady, excerpts from which I shall use later on. Well she is a kind of authority, although one, that in this case, I do not really follow.

Why am I talking about vinaigrette? Well yesterday we went out for a Christmas pub lunch with a host of David's old work colleagues, and I treated myself to fish and chips as I do on such occasions. The fish was delicious, the chips not quite crisp enough, but almost, and there was a wedge of baby cos on the side with a dollop of salad dressing on top, which was not that nice. I don't know if it came out of a commercial bottle or not, but anyway it had that undefinable sort of commercial taste. It was a bit creamy and a bit tart. It made me think that I should do something on vinaigrette because I don't think I ever have.

A tiny aside on the whole thing is the word itself. It suddenly occurred to me - rather late in life of course - that vinaigrette means little vinegar - the 'ette' part of the word being a diminutive. So, for example, my French exchange partner Simone was known as Monette - little Simone. Meaning literally little when she was, but later in life a term of endearment of course. Anyway it got me to wondering why the sauce or dressing - I'm not quite sure what the subtle distinction is - is named after the vinegar. After all, the main ingredient is oil and almost everyone says to be careful how much vinegar you add. So perhaps in this case it means 'a little bit of vinegar'?

I saw all sorts of learned articles on origins, the most convincing of which was that the Babylonians back around 2000 BC used oil and vinegar as a salad dressing. The Egyptians added some Asian spices - which is what we seem to be turning back to. For example I just watched a video of Adam Liaw making his Onion vinaigrette which included soy sauce and rice vinegar. The wheel has turned full cycle.

There were arguments about whether it was the French or the Italians who created it, but actually I don't think anyone had a decisive argument. I guess it was just that somebody way back when found that oil and vinegar added zing to greens and so it came to be. Though I have to say that somewhere along the line the British lost the knack, because when I was a child salad dressing either came out of a bottle - I never liked it - even back then, or was just vinegar - malt vinegar at that because there was no other - with a little bit of sugar, or no dressing at all.

Then I went to France and tasted that tomato salad, which I have written about several times, and I was blown away. In the Coutant household I learnt that a green salad dressed in vinaigrette was a daily occurrence at dinner after the nightly soup or egg dish and before the cheese and fruit. Mr. Coutant would make the vinaigrette. I cannot remember his preferred proportion of oil to vinegar, but I know there was mustard in there and that he chopped the garlic into tiny pieces. I can still see him concentrating on the task. And so I took the recipe back to England and have used it on my slides ever since.

So when I turned to Felicity Cloake and her perfect version I was rather filled with fellow feeling when I read these words:

"My epiphany came in the form of a simple side salad – no micro herbs or heirloom radishes here – dressed with the most perfect of vinaigrettes. Each lightly coated leaf was a delicate essay in culinary restraint. The kick of the vinegar, the heat of the mustard, the seasoning – all so finely balanced I wanted to weep."

So how do you make it? My version is near enough to the supposedly classic 3 to 1 of oil and vinegar, (extra-virgin olive oil and white wine vinegar);

"The usual proportion of vinegar to oil is 1 to 3, but you should establish your own relations," Julia Child

Elizabeth David goes for much more oil:

"The French dressing most commonly used consists of 3 parts oil to 1 of vinegar, but to my mind this is far too vinegary, and I seldom use less than 6 times as much oil as vinegar. Tarragon-flavoured wine vinegar makes the best dressing. First-class olive oil is of course essential, and given this, the flavour of the lettuce and the oil, with a little salt and garlic, is quite enough to make a perfect salad without any further seasoning."

The Italians, on the other hand, have a tendency to put the oil and the vinegar in bottles on the table and leave you to it. Although they have a tendency to use balsamic vinegar, which, I have to say, doesn't seem quite right to me. Lovely for dipping bread into, but too heavy for a green salad - a bit like shiraz bubbly wine is not right either.

Of course there is a whole world of argument as well as to what kind of oil and what kind of vinegar, with the majority I think plumping for at least a bit of a milder oil than extra virgin olive oil. Only Elizabeth David insisted on the finest olive oil. Most seemed to think that olive oil was too dominant. A matter of taste I guess.

Now oil and vinegar don't mix. And for a long and detailed fairly scientific analysis of the whole process you can do no worse than turn to J. Kenji López-Alt for explanation. In a way it doesn't matter if you are dressing and eating your salad straight away, as long as you give them a good whisk. But any longer and the oil and vinegar will separate out:

"Unless you emulsify your vinaigrette, you end up with a pile of leaves dressed in oil, and a pool of vinegar at the bottom of the salad bowl, completely destroying the flavor of the sauce." J. Kenji López-Alt

What I do is to add a large pinch of English mustard powder but another option might be honey. Many authors thought that Dijon mustard was better than mustard powder as it made the sauce creamier, but really it's up to you. Once you start moving into other things like tahini, I think you are moving away from a French dressing, as it used to be called, into something else. Not bad - but different. For me I think honey might be a bit sweet but I guess it depends on what kind of salad you are dressing and how much acid you have in there.

And what about the garlic? Well this is where Elizabeth David get's really hot under the collar:

"The grotesque prudishness and archness with which garlic is treated in this country has led to the superstition that rubbing the bowl with it before putting the salad in gives sufficient flavour. It rather depends whether you are going to eat the bowl or the salad. If you like the taste of garlic but don’t actually wish to chew the bulb itself, crush it with the point of a knife (there is really no necessity to fuss about with garlic presses and such devices unless you wish to intensify and concentrate the acrid-tasting oils in the garlic instead of dispersing them), put it in the bowl in which the dressing is to be mixed, add the other ingredients and stir vigorously. Leave it to stand for an hour and by that time the garlic will have flavoured the oil, and it can be left behind when the dressing is poured on to the salad. ...” Elizabeth David

Robert Carrier, on the other hand is a fan - he even rubbed the bowl - but then I don't think Elizabeth David was a fan of Robert Carrier:

"Chopped garlic is often a must. Rub a cut clove of garlic around the bowl at the outset (!), then chop the garlic and add it to the salad before the final tossing."

I always use garlic because that's how I first tasted vinaigrette. Recently I have taken to also chopping it very small, but for most of my life I have used the dreaded garlic press. I make it in the salad bowl - freshly every day - and then toss the leaves in it.

As to the order of doing things. Several people seemed to think that whisking the extras - salt, pepper, mustard - whatever - into the vinegar, before whisking in the oil was a good way to go.

"in my experience the vinegar and a little salt like to get to know one another a bit before being introduced to the oil. The salt seems to mellow the vinegar, taking off the highest acid note and bringing out the true flavour." Nigel Slater

And here I ramble to a gossipy aside. Somehow vinaigrette has come into the story of a recent Hollywood bit of gossip. It seems that Olivia Wilde - an actress and director - very beautiful by the way - very recently split with partner/husband (I don't know which) Jason Sudeikis - Ted Lasso if you are a Ted Lasso fan - in favour of the star of her most recent film - Harry Styles - a pop star turned actor. Yes I know - not interested - but the thing that everyone has been going on about - or one of them - it seems is that she is taking her recipe for vinaigrette - seen above with her, to Jason Sudeikis' dismay. But at last all is revealed - she posted this recipe:

"Mix 2 tablespoons Grey Poupon mustard with 2 tablespoons good red wine vinegar. Then, whisking constantly with a fork, slowly add 6 tablespoons olive oil, until the vinaigrette is thick and creamy; this makes a very strong vinaigrette that's perfect for salad greens like arugola and watercress and endive." Olivia Wilde?

I know this is not a gossip post, but I just thought it interesting that something so basic food-wise, well any food really should be such a big thing in the same old story of a failed Hollywood relationship. Does he care more about losing the salad dressing than her? It actually sounds like a good recipe.

Many other cooks were fans of the putting it all in a jar and shaking hard method. Many also thought it would keep for ages in the fridge, which may well be, but not if you add garlic I think. The garlic, over time, does not taste nice.

So there you go - French dressing:

"The basic French dressing of France is a mixture of good wine vinegar, good oil, salt, pepper, fresh green herbs in season, and mustard if you like it. Garlic is employed usually only in southern France. Worcester sauce, curry, cheese, and tomato flavourings are not French additions, and sugar is heresy." Julia Child

And don't pour the dressing over the salad - put it in the bowl and then toss the leaves in it:

"As for the dressing, I usually prefer to mix mine directly in the salad bowl - a wooden one, of course, and washed as seldom as possible - blending olive oil and vinegar or citrus juice with freshly ground pepper, salt, garlic and chopped fresh herbs, before I add the salad leaves." Robert Carrier

“It seems to me that there are only three absolutely essential rules to be observed: the lettuce must be very fresh; the vinegar in the dressing must be reduced to the absolute minimum’ the dressing must be mixed with the lettuce only at the moment of serving. Wash the lettuce. Ideally of course it should not be washed at all, but each leaf wiped with a clean damp cloth,) under a running cold tap; don’t leave it to soak. Drain it in a wire salad basket, or a colander, or shake it in a clean teacloth in which it can then be hung up to dry; or it can be put, still wrapped in its cloth, into a refrigerator until half an hour before it is to be served (don’t put a freshly picked garden lettuce in the refrigerator, but it will do no harm to the average bought lettuce). The salad dressing can be prepared beforehand, and when it is time to mix the salad, do it gently, taking your time, and ensuring that each leaf has its proper coating of oil. The most effective way of mixing a green salad is with your hands." Elizabeth David

But you can use salad servers too. And so much for 'not carrying on about [it]'

Of course these are modern times, and chefs today do not like to leave well alone - and indeed why should they, and so they add other things:

"You'll need some acid element, some enriching oil, but you can add as few or as many seasonings as you wish. Those seasonings can be aromatic (mustard, chopped shallot); hot or spicy (hashed chillies, horseradish), or textural (poppy seeds or shredded ginger), but what is crucial is settling on a dressing that flatters the salad leaves rather than smothering them." Nigel Slater

Yotam Ottolenghi uses lemon juice and maple syrup instead of vinegar and honey; and a chopped shallot instead of garlic - I guess that could work. And at the end of the recipe he says:

"Toss together with fresh peppery leaves, serve as a salsa for oily fish or roast chicken, or toss through cold rice or pasta salad."

For that's the thing with vinaigrette. It can be used for all sorts of things besides dressing a green salad, or a more complicated salad, from dressings for fried or grilled fish or vegetables, to marinades to these 21 suggestions from Bon Appétit or these from Food Republic:

"Fruit vinaigrette - Vinegar melts ripe fruit, this is a fact. When ripe fruit melts into vinegar, you get a condiment that's good on everything from roasted or grilled meat to fish back to more fruit. Simply mash whatever ratios of vinegar to fruit make you most comfortable with a fork, then strain and whisk with olive oil.

Jar of almost-empty whatever vinaigrette - Half a teaspoon of blackberry jam left in the drawer? Vinaigrette for spinach salad, boom. The last vestiges of mustard you couldn't scrape out with a spoon. Drizzle on boring chicken. Just pour a little vinegar and olive oil into the jar with whatever else (ground pepper and fresh herbs work nicely) shake vigorously and dispense."

Then there's the classic artichoke with vinaigrette, or Leeks vinaigrette (these are from Adam Liaw). I don't think you can eat avocado without vinaigrette either.

"It is not an ingredient. It is a preparation. It is an idea, a way of eating." Bill Buford


Here is Monday's Ottolenghi strata dish we had for dinner. I forgot to hold back some of the pesto thing to sprinkle on top so there is rather more of it in the mix. I made some more to put on top. I also didn't use kale - I had none so it's a mix of silver beet, and a few leaves from pak choy that was going to seed. We gave it 3 1/2 stars as it was pretty nice and worth trying again, but not particularly wow I suppose. And certainly worth experimenting with other flavours. I shall try the smoked salmon version from Belinda Jefferey some time in the not too distant future.


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