Today’s Cook Like a Chef recipe is vinaigrette dressing. It’s great on a crisp green salad, of course, and would also be delicious drizzled over grilled meat, fish, tofu or vegetables.
Every home cook should have a quick-to-make, no-fail homemade salad dressing in his or her repertoire.
Our chef/instructor for vinaigrette is Thor Erickson. He’s an experienced restaurant chef who has been teaching culinary arts at Cascade Culinary Institute since 2009. Erickson won the Cooking Teacher of the Year Award of Excellence awarded by the International Association of Culinary Professionals in 2013.
“The vinaigrette is the backbone of good salad making. It tastes way better than any bottled dressing you could ever buy. It’s a prime example of how good ingredients, like good oil and good vinegar, are going to set it apart,” Erickson said.
The tricky part about making a homemade salad dressing is getting the oil and vinegar to emulsify, or stay mixed together.
“It’s hard to get oil and vinegar to get along with each other! They always want to separate into their own camps, no matter how much you shake it up. One trick I use is a little mustard — dry mustard works very well, or you can use Dijon, or any type in any strength. Mustard contains lecithin, and it’s this kind of wonderful peacemaker between the oil and the vinegar,” Erickson said.
Lecithin is a naturally occurring phospholipid that acts as an emulsifier and stabilizer in food.
If you don’t like mustard, Erickson suggested that a little roasted garlic jam or olive jam gives vinaigrette some texture that acts as a thickening agent. Look in the condiment aisle of your favorite grocery store for these jams.
“You can make a Mediterranean variation on basic vinaigrette (see recipe) that emulsifies well. Add some feta cheese and sun-dried tomatoes to the dressing. They’re like rebar. They give the dressing more structure and kind of hold it together,” Erickson said.
Erickson likes to make a cup of vinaigrette at a time and said it lasts for a week in the refrigerator. One cup makes enough dressing for four salads for four people.
“One of the main parts of a basic vinaigrette that I swear by is shallots. These days you can buy shallots in any grocery store. A shallot is not as pungent as an onion, and not as spicy as garlic, and it can be sweet and it can be savory, and it has this kind of friendly quality — whatever you want it to be, it is. Just like I keep garlic sealed up in my refrigerator, cut up and ready to use, I always keep shallots in there, too, stored with my onions,” Erickson said.
Mix up the vinaigrette
To make the vinaigrette, follow the recipe. Chop a shallot into a fine dice (called a brunoise in the professional cooking world), and put it in a small jar.
Add the vinegar to the jar, followed by the mustard of your choice, if using. Add the optional flavoring ingredient (such as olive jam), if using. Add the oil, and salt and pepper to taste.
“Some people don’t like black pepper, so you can use white pepper. Salt is a flavor enhancer, not a flavoring. It brings everything together. It accentuates the acidity in the vinegar and helps in the emulsification process as well,” Erickson said.
Put the lid on the jar and then shake it vigorously.
“If you have an immersion blender, you could give it a good blend. Your vinaigrette is going to stick together; you’re forcing all those ingredients to hang out together in a big way,” he said.
To make an outstanding green salad, Erickson looks for greens in terms of flavor and texture.
“There’s so much variety available these days, and I’m a purist. I’m a chef, and I believe in buying whole heads — the whole romaine lettuce, for example, and cleaning it myself. You want clean, dry, crispy greens with no browning on the greens of any kind,” he said.
“Start with a few pieces of something crispy and light, like romaine — that’s a great backdrop. It’s like I’m painting, and romaine is my backdrop. On top of that, I’m going to build texture. I might put in some baby kale. Not only does that have a different color, it has a different flavor and texture, and definitely more earthiness. Then I might add some arugula, clean and dry,” Erickson said.
Erickson recommends washing only the greens you’re going to use for the salad you’re making. Don’t wash a lot and store the rest. He washes his greens twice and then gently spins them in a salad spinner to dry them.
“Don’t soak greens for long. Let them float in a sink or bowl with at least 4 inches of water between the bottom of the greens and the bottom of the sink, so anything on the greens has a chance to sink to the bottom. Then gently skim the greens off the top and wash them again. I’ll use a salad spinner to dry them, but this is not the spin cycle like when I’m washing my towels. Go easy. These are greens I’m going to put in my body,” he said.
After the clean greens are in a big salad bowl, Erickson sprinkles them with a pinch or two of kosher or sea salt and tosses them with no dressing yet, and then he leaves the salted greens alone for a few seconds.
“The greens will weep just a little bit. They’re still going to be crispy, but that salt brings everything together and brings out the natural flavor of those greens. Then they’re ready to be tossed with the vinaigrette, a little bit of dressing at a time. You don’t want it to become soupy. Too much dressing will wilt the salad,” he said.
Add a few favorite embellishments to the greens, such as diced avocado, fresh herbs or chopped nuts, and you’re done. Bon appétit, and happy eating when you cook like a chef.
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