The humble vinaigrette
Quite possibly the best ever invention in food history has to be the vinaigrette. Whilst I am sure the Greeks, Romans and other ancient civilisations dressed food with oil and vinegar, the actual term “vinaigrette” – a diminutive of the French word vinaigre – came much later. John Evelyn, a gardener and writer, wrote about “vinaigrets, to ſharpen the Appetite, and cool the Liver” in his 1699 discourse on sallets, “Acetaria”. As I understand it the word didn’t enter general use until much later.
Here is his recipe for a simple vinaigrette which reads pretty much the same as a modern recipe, even down to the advice to only dress the salad right before serving! Its amazing that this was written over 300 years ago.
“Your Herbs being handſomely parcell’d, and ſpread on a clean Napkin before you, are to be mingl’d together in one of the Earthen glaz’d Diſhes: Then, for theOxoleon; Take of clear, and perfectly good Oyl-Olive, three Parts; of ſharpeſt Vinegar (67ſweeteſt of all Condiments) Limon, or Juice of Orange, one Part; and therein let ſteep ſome Slices of Horſe-Radiſh, with a little Salt; Some in a ſeparate Vinegar, gently bruiſe a Pod of Guinny-Pepper, ſtraining both the Vinegars apart, to make Uſe of Either, or One alone, or of both, as they beſt like; then add as much Tewkesbury, or other dry Muſtard grated, as will lie upon an Half-Crown Piece: Beat, and mingle all theſe very well together; but pour not on the Oyl and Vinegar, ’till immediately before the Sallet is ready to be eaten: And then with the Yolk of two new-laid Eggs (boyl’d and prepar’d, as before is taught) ſquaſh, and bruiſe them all into maſh with a Spoon; and laſtly, pour it all upon the Herbs, ſtirring, and mingling them ’till they are well and throughly imbib’d; not forgetting the Sprinklings of Aromaticks, and ſuch Flowers, as we have already mentioned, if you think fit, and garniſhing the Diſh with the thin Slices of Horſe-Radiſh, Red Beet, Berberries, &c.
Note, That the Liquids may be made more, or leſs Acid, as is moſt agreeable to your Taſte.”
Those ingredients and ratios are pretty much what I follow… roughly 3 parts oil, olive or rapeseed, to 1 part acid. Salt, pepper, sugar and mustard. I like using Dijon mustard because it helps the dressing stay emulsified, thick and creamy. You can add herbs, garlic and shallots too or even a chopped up boiled egg. Just shove it all in a bowl and whisk to combine. Shove a finger in and taste for balance adding more seasoning or vinegar or oil depending.
The best thing to have with a mustardy sharp dressing has to be some BBQ vegetables. Take chicory (or gem heart lettuce), asparagus and spring onions. Clean up the base of the chicory just to remove the dry end. You really only want to remove a slither though leaving as much of the base intact as possible. Cut them length ways into quarters.
Trim up the spring onions again being careful to leave the base intact and remove the woody parts of the asparagus. Brush them all lightly with oil, season and chargrill.
They won’t take long and you want them to retain some bite. Add them to the dressing whilst still warm and serve with a good steak and a bottle of wine. Awesome how food so simple can taste so good.