Dressing up Vinaigrette

Infused with flavors trendy or classic, oil and vinegar make an essential finishing touch for summer meals


Like a ripe tomato, still warm from the vine, and white corn, so crunchy-sweet it hardly needs cooking, a vinaigrette is an essential building block for the perfect summer meal.

Vinegar and oil, combined despite their best efforts to remain apart and distinct, give every summer menu item -- from a grilled steak to salad greens -- a chance to be better.

"Vinaigrettes are so incredibly versatile," said Real Simple magazine food editor Renee Schettler. "Especially this time of year when we have access to so many vegetables that require only a chop or a slice."

The classic vinaigrette is three parts oil to one part of the vinegar from which its name is derived. Add a pinch of salt and some fresh ground pepper, and you can stop there.

But you also can keep going. Grocery shelves and specialty food stores offer a range of infused oils, as well as oils from nuts, such as walnut, and seeds, such as avocado. And there are red wine, white wine, cider and rice wine vinegars, as well as fruit vinegars and a rainbow of flavored vinegars.

That's just the beginning. A little bit of mustard will keep the vinegar and oil from separating, but there is a range in this ingredient as well, from Dijon to a hearty country mustard.

A few chops of shallot are nice. But you also can add crushed garlic. Or some grated ginger. You can take the bite out of the vinegar with a touch of sugar. Or honey. Or maple syrup or apple juice. And you can add some herbs from the garden, such as dill, chives or basil.

Then you can go to town with a spoonful of salsa. Or soy sauce. Or a hunk of blue cheese. Or hummus or chopped olives. "Use the flavors you have at home that you love," said Schettler.

Replace some of the oil with bacon drippings. Or replace the vinegar with a citrus juice as pure as lemon or as exotic as pomegranate. Splash the vinaigrette over greens or cooked vegetables, a mild cheese or a slice of baguette. Use it to dress potato or rice salads. Marinate meat or fish. Add it to ground meat for the perfect burger.

"Vinaigrette is whatever you want it to be -- or need it to be -- at the moment," said Schettler.

According to Mintel Menu Insights, a market research firm that tracks national restaurant trends, more than 500 new entrees that use vinaigrette appeared on menus across the country last year. Most vinaigrette flavors on restaurant menus included balsamic, raspberry, red wine, Italian and lemon. But emerging flavors include tamarind, black walnut, cranberry, salsa, shallot and ginger, according to the firm.

Brigitte Bledsoe, chef of Miss Shirley's restaurant in Roland Park, is one of those riding the crest of this wave of creativity. Her menu features a blood orange, tarragon and roasted tomato vinaigrette; her poppy seed vinaigrette is the house dressing. She changes her vinaigrettes for each season, finding new combinations for what is fresh.

Off-the-wall blends

Even some of the experimenters think dressings may have gotten a tad elaborate. Geoffrey Zakarian, author of a new cookbook titled Town/Country, which includes a pear-curry vinaigrette, said vinaigrettes have achieved the hip status that leads to off-the-wall concoctions.

"When something takes off, it always gets abused," he said. "We've had chocolate vinaigrettes and these ridiculous things."

Zanne Stewart, who supervises the test kitchens at Gourmet magazine, said that with all the specialty ingredients, it is possible to devote an entire closet shelf to salad paraphernalia. "Have we gone over the top?" she asked. "I think so."

But Zakarian sees hope. "After a while, it comes back down to earth. Now people are learning to make a good vinaigrette and make it correctly."

Chef Greg Hare, who teaches at Baltimore International College culinary school, believes in the simplicity of the classic. Vinegar means "sour wine," he said. "And the French have been making vinaigrette since they have been making wine. It was a means of using up all the wine that went sour."

It was usually red wine. The white vinegar that for a long time was the only product available to the American home cook is a man-made acetic acid.

"If you wanted a white wine vinegar, you had to make your own wine or find a gourmet shop or know a guy," said Hare.

Though Hare describes himself as "a guy who likes to keep it simple," he is not averse to substituting a citrus juice for the vinegar. "Oranges and lemons," he said. "Citrus is what helps kick the taste buds open."

Michael Chiarello, host of the television cooking shows Easy Entertaining and NapaStyle, is famous for his citrus vinaigrettes made with the whole fruit pressed through a juicer.

"I like to use other acids to make the base instead of vinegar," he said. "Tomatoes with olive oil, garlic, basil and a few teaspoons of balsamic. Whole lemons, using the natural pectins found in the skin and pulp, Dijon mustard, roasted peppers. These all give you added flavors without weighing down your greens."

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