Versatile Vinaigrette

More than just a way to dress salad, this simple sauce can add flavor to grilled meat, appetizers and even desserts.

March 26, 2003|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF

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 a 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 a 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 Pierpoint in Fells Point. "I play around with vinaigrettes all the time."

At Pierpoint, 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 grapeseed, 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 dressing are the more delicate and gentle varieties. But how is the consumer to know which one to choose?

Unfortunately, the choice isn't easy, Pustarfi says.

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