Being called upon to cook for family gatherings is a source of anxiety for my stepsister Meagan. Our family is populated by a disproportionate number of food professionals: my brother (Michelin star restaurant chef), sister-in-law (pastry chef), sister (former line cook), myself, and my dad who, although he has never been in the food business, assesses every dish as if he were the New York Times restaurant critic. Meagan isn’t enormously confident in the kitchen, so cooking for this lot rattles her nerves, to say the least. “It’s an (earmuffs, kids) “effing foodie nightmare,” she exclaimed after hosting Christmas dinner one year.
Recently, she overdressed an arugula salad at a summer barbecue, something that borders on mortal sin amongst certain members of our crowd. A few days later she asked if I’d help sharpen her skills on the salad front so as to avoid future culinary blunders. She wanted guidance on how to dress it just right and how to make the perfect vinaigrette, warning that if it can’t be knocked out in under two minutes, she’s reaching for the bottled ranch.
This is for you Meagan. Now if you blow it with the arugula, you can blame the food professional.
Your basic, call it “weeknight” vinaigrette requires just four ingredients: vinegar, Dijon mustard, olive oil, and salt. The mustard isn’t truly essential, but it gives the dressing flavor and body that I happen to like on most salads. The only piece of equipment needed is an ordinary jar with a tight-fitting lid. An empty jam jar will do. Put the ingredients into the jar, screw on the top, and give it a vigorous shake. Done. There is no bowl or whisk to clean, and the jar doubles as a storage container so any leftovers can go straight into the fridge.
Here are a couple of other tidbits to keep in mind:
• Use a ratio of vinegar to oil that suits your tastebuds. The classic is four parts oil to one part vinegar, but I prefer dressing a little tangy and go for a three to one ratio. The type and acidity of vinegar also affects the ratio.
• Taste the dressing before it goes on the salad by dipping a lettuce leaf into the vinaigrette and shaking off any excess. Consider the following: is it too tangy/oily/salty/not salty enough/toomustardy? Make adjustments accordingly.
• Dry the greens thoroughly. If they are still moist, the dressing won’t adhere and the salad will be soggy.
• To avoid overdressing, start by drizzling on less than you think you need. Toss it well. If it needs more, you can always add it. But once overdressed, there’s no going back.
• Once it’s dressed, serve the salad immediately.
Double or triple the recipe and store any extra in the refrigerator. Then you don’t have to start from scratch every time you make a salad.
• 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
• 1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard such as Maille or Grey Poupon
• 1 pinch salt
• 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Put the vinegar, mustard and salt into a small jar. Screw on the lid and shake vigorously. Add the oil to the jar, return the lid and shake again until the ingredients form a smooth emulsion. Dip a lettuce leaf to be sure the taste is to your liking. Adjust any ingredients if needed. If not, drizzle a moderate amount of dressing over the salad. Toss well. Taste. Add a little more dressing if needed and toss again. Serve immediately.
Makes enough to dress a salad for four
• Experiment with other varieties of vinegar: white wine, champagne, balsamic, sherry or Banyuls. You can also use a combination of vinegars if one is particularly assertive such as half red wine vinegar and half Banyuls
• Season the salad with freshly cracked black pepper after it’s dressed
• Add 1 teaspoon of honey for a touch of sweetness, something I tend to do when making a salad that includes pears or other fruit
• Use a splash of soy sauce in place of the salt
• Add 1 to 2 teaspoons of minced shallots
• Add 1 to 2 teaspoons of chopped fresh herbs such as chives, basil, or parsley
• Substitute lemon juice for half of the vinegar; add lemon zest if the mood strikes
• Use walnut oil or hazelnut oil in place of 1 tablespoon of the olive oil