Sunday, January 27, 2013

Small Steps in the Kitchen #1: Shaken Vinaigrette

During this first month of the new year when those of you who have made resolutions find yourself faltering or wishing you hadn't chosen such a ridiculous task why not take a this moment to substitute or add a simple new project in which you can become more involved with your food. Topics like proposition 37, eating locally & organic, farm to table, humane and sustainable are all very hot right now being a concern of lifestyle and morality if not just a healthy trend. If you would like to become more involved with your food but are overwhelmed or intimidated with an approach do me a quick favor; go to your fridge or pantry and take a look at that bottle of commercially made vinaigrette or salad dressing. It should be the last one you want to buy.

What you will need for this life changing project:

 (Note: When acquiring the elements listed below it is your opportunity to buy local, organic, sustainable and/or handcrafted items. These items represent who and what you will be supporting and what you will be putting into your body. Do your part and shop).

  • An 16 ounce food grade container with a tight fitting lid- I prefer to use glass jars my family and I have emptied (olives, capers, mustard, maraschino cherries). They are obviously food grade, durable and washable with a nice tight fitting lid. However you may have another bottle or vessel you would like to use and go ahead as long as the lid with not pop off while vigorously shaken.
  • Oil- I suggest to start this project with a mild, moderately priced oil.  A virgin olive oil or olive & canola blend work great for health and flavor however you could use a nut oil, grape seed,  or other specialty oil. It just may create more stress as you begin to invest time and money into this lifestyle change. I recommend keeping it simple. Use an oil you can also cook with in other recipes and dishes so as not to clutter your counter and pantry. Once you start to get a feel and taste for what you like and want out of your vinaigrette you can pursue other enhancements. 
  • Vinegar- As suggested with the oil you want to start with a clean, straight forward vinegar. Unless you have a real desire don't bother with an infused vinegar or super exclusive variety. Spend your money on a well made vinegar that although has a pronounced flavor unto itself would lend itself to other dishes or recipes.You will be adding herbs, spices and your own flavors into your vinaigrette as time goes on so limiting yourself with a definite flavor base would be stunting to your culinary growth. Try starting with a white wine, red wine, cider, champagne, rice (unseasoned) vinegar. You can even use fresh lemon juice if desired. When approaching balsamic vinegar read the ingredients and ONLY buy the bottle which reads 'grape must' or 'Trebbiano grapes'. Many false commercially produced so called "balsamic"  vinegar has caramel flavoring and color added to a vinegar base to mimic the syrupy sweet flavor of a true balsamic. It does not have to be made in Italy as many artisans here in the United States and other countries have started to ferment their own.
  • Kosher or sea salt.
  • Black peppercorns and a pepper mill. If this is not an option for you then use what you feel comfortable with (pre-ground).
  • Prepared Mustard (optional)- Dijon, whole grain, brown. Buy what you like but no yellow or "deli" stuff.
  • Shallot(s) or red onion.
These are the essential basics which we will start our recipe with. I will explain later in this post about adding herbs & spices or other flavor enhancements.

Now assuming you have your vessel and lid washed and dried and all of your other ingredients handy lets begin:

A basic ratio of oil to vinegar in a vinaigrette is 3 to 1 (3 parts oil to 1 part vinegar). Depending on the oil and acidity of the vinegar and of course your preference you may find yourself altering this ratio. That is fine.

The optional mustard listed above does add flavor and a little punch to the vinaigrette however it's main function is as an emulsifier. Granted after your shaken vinaigrette has rested on the counter before use or in the fridge the oil and vinegar mixture will separate. Like your store bought dressings the vinaigrette you will be making will need to be shaken vigorously before each use.

Basic Shaken Vinaigrette:
Yields approx. 8 ounces or 1 Cup/ 8-10 servings.
Inspired by the Joy of Cooking 1978.
  • 4 Tablespoons (scant 1/4 cup) vinegar (lemon juice or combination of)
  • 1 Tablespoon minced shallot or red onion
  • 1/2 teaspoons prepared mustard
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
  • Fresh ground pepper to taste (approx 1/4 teaspoon or two pinches)
  • 3/4 Cup olive oil (or oil of choice)

  1. Pour vinegar (or lemon juice or combination of) into your container. Add everything else except for the oil.
  2. Place the lid onto container. Tightly seal and shake vigorously to combine the ingredients and fully incorporate the mustard into the vinegar mixture.
  3. Remove the lid and add 1/4 Cup of the oil to the vinegar mixture. Reseal the container and vigorously shake the oil & vinegar mixture for about 30 seconds. You are trying to emulsify the vinegar and oil to make a creamy (not oily) and coherent dressing. This is where the mustard acts a s a binding agent to help in this process.
  4. Remove the lid once again and add the remaining oil. Again, seal the container and vigorously shake the mixture for another 30 seconds.
  5. Remove the lid from container and taste for seasoning.

You have just made a vinaigrette. It will keep in your fridge with a great flavor for 1-2 weeks. At 2 weeks it will not necessarily have gone bad rather the fresh ingredients (shallot, herbs) will have become pickled, loose their appearance and some flavor making a less palatable vinaigrette. But you can make more. Right?

I have presented this recipe in a primitive manner so there is NO excuse for you to commit and start this project now. No blenders, Cuisinart, immersion blender sticks or fancy tech is required for you to get held up on. Grab a jar and get to it.

If however you own a nice piece of mechanical equipment than you will have no problem whipping together a nice smooth, creamy vinaigrette. Start by putting you vinegar mixture in your mechanical vessel and then while the machine is running slowly drizzle in your oil to emulsify. Note: Making a dressing in a mechanical element will allow your oil & vinegar mixture to emulsify much better than by whisk or shake. I will eventually separate though and need to be re emulsified.

Flavor enhancement.

The addition of fresh or even dried herbs are a great way to enhance the flavor of your dressing. This is where you get to really play with your food. Choose the herb(s) you like, chop fine or mince and add them to the vinegar mixture in step 1 of the method. The herbs will discolor in time as they sit in the vinaigrette but their flavor will be kept in tact. Dill, basil, tarragon, thyme, cilantro, parsley and sage are just a few of the herbs you might want to try. For mild herbs like basil and cilantro 1 tablespoon is a good start. For heartier herbs like thyme, rosemary and oregano 1 teaspoon is adequate for beginning.

Spices are another great way to add depth to your dressing. Again add them in step 1 of the method. Depending on the spice and your preference the amount will vary. For most spices start with a 1/2 teaspoon to 1 teaspoon of your desired spice. If using a combination of spices or spices and herbs the quantity of each element should be diminished so as not to overpower each other or the dressing all together. Coriander, cumin, paprika, cardamom, curry powder are some great flavors to try.

Some like it sweeter and having variety with you vinaigrette and salads is great. The addition of honey, agave nectar, various sugars or sweeteners is a great way to mellow the acid and add some flavor. Using a sweeter fresh fruit juice in place of the vinegar (or portion of) is also terrific for adding some diversity and sweetness to your dressing without using sugar or sweetener. 

Left: 8 oz. canning jar.
Right: 16 oz. canning jar.
Since you are making this vinaigrette you can allow yourself to experiment with your  flavors and combinations of flavors. All you have to do is add, seal container and shake. A good rule to follow is the you can always ADD but you cannot SUBTRACT. So it is best to be modest with your additions in the beginning.

Reading through the ingredients of an inferior "balsamic" vinegar
 product you will find possible carcinogenic elements
 such as caramel coloring. Besides the health issue
it is just plain 'F' for fake. 
Minced red onion and prepared Dijon style
We have plenty of random
vinegar here

In this picture the jars holds two layers of liquid.
The bottom layer is the vinegar mixture.
The top layer is my first addition of oil before
vigorously shaking.

Yes, a bottle of commercially made salad dressing can be found in my own home. I am even known to indulge.
However looking at the list of ingredients does make the idea of eating this less appealing.

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