There once was a time when vinaigrette was just a dressing for a salad. Today, this gossamer sauce is turning up on everything from poached fish to grilled sweetbreads. As Americans seek lighter foods, vinaigrettes have come to replace such classical French sauces as demi-glace and hollandaise. Infinitely varied, quick to prepare, vinaigrettes are adaptable to a wide range of foods. Cholesterol-free, they have become the veritable elixir of youth for a nation obsessed with flavor but unwilling to tolerate fat.
Not that vinaigrettes are particularly new. In the Middle Ages, vinaigrette-like sauces were made using verjuice (the juice of unripe grapes). The great 19th century French chef Escoffier included vinaigrette recipes in his seminal "Guide Culinaire."
Jean-Georges Vongerichten, owner of New York's trendy new restaurant Jojo, recalls eating vinaigrette not only on salads, but also with sausage and pot au feu when he was growing up in Alsace. "With rich food like that of Alsace, you need something acidic to cut the fat," Mr. Vongerichten says.
Nor are vinaigrettes the exclusive province of France. With fish, Joyce Goldstein of the restaurant Square One in San Francisco serves charmoula, a Moroccan sauce made with lemon juice, olive oil, cilantro, parsley, and garlic. Vietnamese nuoc cham is a sort of vinaigrette made with lime juice, sugar and fish sauce. Bolito misto (Italian boiled dinner) would seem naked without salsa verde, a piquant green condiment made with capers, anchovies, and fresh herbs. Mexican salsa could also be considered a kind of vinaigrette.
What is new and uniquely American, however, is the way today's chefs are using this time-honored condiment. Chicago's Charlie Trotter simmers lobster shells in oil to make an unusual shellfish vinaigrette. Mr. Vongerichten has created a host of exotic vinaigrettes for Jojo, including artichoke vinaigrette, beet vinaigrette with ginger oil, and a juniper vinaigrette he serves with salmon stuffed cabbage.
Vinaigrette means "little vinegar" in French. Traditionally, the sauce was just that: A little wine vinegar mixed with olive or vegetable oil, salt and pepper. The classic proportion is one part vinegar to three or four parts oil. Often, a spoonful of mustard is added to help emulsify the ingredients.
The new vinaigrettes feature a host of exotic oils and vinegars. Mr. Vongerichten favors canola and grape seed oil for many of his vinaigrettes. "The 6 percent saturated fat found in canola oil and 9 percent in grape seed oil is a big improvement over the 20 percent found in olive oil," he says. Mr. Ambrose is partial to walnut oil and hazelnut oil. "They have a lower viscosity than olive oil, which makes them less likely to separate."
Other progressive chefs are using mustard seed oil (available at Indian markets), macadamia nut oil and avocado oil (available at health food markets), and Asian sesame oil (the type made with toasted sesame seeds). Then there are the extra-virgin olive oils, some with vintages, just like wine.
In this age of increasing connoisseurship, plain old wine vinegar just won't do. Charlie Trotter swears by the delicate flavor of champagne vinegar. Balsamic vinegar is another popular vinegar. Its sweetness makes it a natural for all sorts of salads. Other chefs turn to the juice of lemons, limes, oranges or grapefruits, or a mixture of all four.
Vinaigrettes need binders
Because oil is lighter than water (and by extension vinegar and fruit juice), vinaigrettes have a natural tendency to separate. In classical French cuisine, an egg yolk and a spoonful of mustard is added to help bind the ingredients together. Mr. Vongerichten adds a spoonful of boiling water to help his vinaigrettes emulsify. Boston chef Tony Ambrose adds a sweetener, like honey or maple syrup, to help stabilize the mixture. "The long sugar molecules act as an emulsifying agent," Mr. Ambrose explains.
During my apprenticeship years in France, I remember laboriously whisking the oil into the vinegar for 20 minutes to make vinaigrette. The same effect can be achieved by using a blender, or even by shaking the ingredients together in a jar. Not that chefs always want the ingredients to remain blended. Mr. Vongerichten prepares a vinaigrette with an emerald green basil oil and a fire-colored reduction of orange juice. "I mix them lightly with a spoon. The sauce separates into tiny beads of green and orange. It's gorgeous," says Mr. Vongerichten.
One of the most exciting developments in the world of vinaigrettes is the advent of flavored oils. "When I arrived in the U.S. six years ago, everyone was serving beurre blanc [white butter sauce]," recalls Mr. Vongerichten. "I wanted to show people there was more to French cuisine than cream and butter. I started playing with flavored oils as a way to eliminate the saturated fats."
Mr. Vongerichten's first efforts involved mixing oil with powdered spices like cardamom and ginger. "The spices sunk to the bottom, and the result was very gritty," he recalls.
He next tried blending the spices with water to make a paste, which he mixed with the oil. Again, the spices separated out, but this time the oil absorbed their fragrance. Soon, Mr. Vongerichten was blending oil with fresh herbs, pureed vegetables and reductions of fruit juices. The results of his experimentation is a new book called "Simple Cooking."
It's certainly an idea whose time has come. Exotic vinaigrettes are turning up in top restaurants across the country. "We're way ahead of the French," opines Mr. Vongerichten, who says that his colleagues in France are less interested in vinaigrettes than Americans.
Steven Raichlen is the author of seven cookbooks. His most recent is "A Celebration of the Seasons: A Cook's Almanac" (Poseidon Press, 1988).