Paul Newman and I have something in common. No, it isn’t our good looks or the twinkle in our eyes. Our Jewishness? Oy vey, you didn’t know that Paul Newman was Jewish? You don’t have to look for six degrees of separation, just look for two. What we have in common is oil and vinegar. Salad dressing.
Why does whisking oil and vinegar together cause such angst? Say these two words together and you can make a Buckingham Palace Guard blink his eyes. You can cause an elocutionist to stutter. I’ve even heard stories of neighborhood bullies repenting and getting down on their knees while pleading for forgiveness just because of these two words.
I was thinking about this when we recently had dinner at a friend’s house. Judy follows recipes like a classical musician playing a score as written. I might tease her that she should improvise more and measure less, but like that classically-trained musician, Judy hits the right notes that make you feel as welcome as a blessing in her life. But I was surprised to see a bottle of salad dressing on her table guarding the big wooden bowl of salad. I looked at the label. It said Ken’s Balsamic Vinaigrette. Ken? Who is Ken? Does Paul know that Ken is at Judy’s house? Judy looked at me as if the salad dressing police had arrived. She started to defend her use of store bought dressing, which was totally unnecessary. When someone invites me to dinner, I appreciate their effort and try to stay out of their kitchen (especially if it’s my sister’s kitchen since I know she will ask me to chop onions). Still, it made me wonder about why making salad dressing is often an afterthought, when it should be forethought.
The first secret to making vinaigrette is to know how easy it is to make. Now that you know the first secret, the second one is ratio: three parts oil to one part vinegar. The third secret is that you have to taste it. Dip a piece of lettuce into the dressing. Does it need more salt? More vinegar? Or more oil? Since it’s your salad dressing, you get to play around with it. For instance, instead of balsamic vinegar use the lemons that your neighbor brought over. Add a little honey mustard, if you are in the mood for a sweeter version. I usually make enough to last for 3-4 salads so that I don’t have to use the same dressing over and over—the way you would if you purchased a bottle from the store.
Now, I am not here to tell you that the act of making vinaigrette will heal the sick, make the blind see, or make a crazy man sane. I will leave that up to you to decide. However, this small devotion can change your life forever and lead you down the mystical trail only few are courageous enough to travel. At the very least, you won’t find yourself stumbling down supermarket aisles five minutes before your dinner guests are to arrive, spittle rolling down your chin, your eyes like two burning beams scanning the shelves, with your hands held out seeking salvation from the salad dressing deities.
Naming your dressing can be fun. You can call it “I’m Waiting In the Living Room While My Wife Is Still Dressing.” If I let my daughter name it, she would call it “My Dad’s Crappy Salad Dressing — Why can’t I have Ken’s or Paul’s?” Or you could just call it “Judy’s Salad Dressing.” Now, that has a nice sound to it.
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon Dijon or honey mustard
½ teaspoon of minced shallot or garlic
Salt and fresh-ground black pepper
Pour vinegar into a bowl or jar. Whisk or blend in a pinch of salt. Add the shallot and mustard and then whisk in oil. Season with pepper to taste.
Variations or add-ons:
Don’t feel like you can’t make this dressing if you don’t have any shallots on hand. Even simply made with oil, vinegar, salt and pepper, this will beat anything you find on the supermarket shelf. Feel free to replace the balsamic with red or white wine vinegar, sherry vinegar, or lemon juice. Walnut or hazelnut oil can replace some of the olive oil.