Viva la vinaigrette!

Of course, autumn and winter might not be the ideal season for salads, at least not in middle Europe. The locally growing salad variety is narrowed to a few different types, it’s cold outside and usually you prefer hearty foods like stews or soups. But I still love to eat a good bowl of greens with some add ons from time to time. So let’s talk a little bit about seasoning the salads in a creative, healthy way.

I refuse to eat ready-to-eat salad vinaigrettes or those mixed powders, where you just have to add oil and vinegar. Too many ingredients that don’t should be in it, too much sugar and salt. I always mix fresh dressings and love to experiment with the various flavours. So first of all, some general advice:

  • Always, and with always I mean always, mix the vinaigrette in a glass or jar. If you just pour the ingredients directly onto the salad, the flavours can’t mix.
  • Always mix it well. My mom, and so do cooks like Jamie Oliver, used her hands for mixing it through. I personally also love working with my hands, because I love to feel the food and can push the ingredients all together. If you don’t like to do it that way, use at leas a fork and a spoon for mixing.
  • If you have, use a salad tumbler after washing the lettuce to get rid of the unnecessary water, which just would change the taste of the dressing.
  • Buy -if possible- local sorts, not packaged and cut. Usually the salad mixes in the plastic bags get wasted way faster than fresh ones and besides the fact that a bag of salad costs the same as two normal heads, they all taste more or less the same and just produce a lot of garbage. I know it’s easy – but you will discover the various tastes and textures of the types that grow in your area. It makes also a huge difference how you cut the ingredients, because they also absorb the vinaigrette differently.
  • Play with contrasts: bitter, harder lettuce loves sweet or spicy vinaigrette, softer types enjoy some sparkling lemon and light oils.
  • In some areas, it’s common to mix sugar into the vinaigrette. They claim it’s “Viennese” – I think it’s just not necessary and a real bad habit. I hate it to bite into a bit of sugar, it’s absolutely disgusting. If you use good vinegar and know what to mix together, you definitely won’t have a super-sour dressing that needs sugar.
  • My personal opinion is that simple meals like a bowl of salad gets very special when you use high quality ingredients. So you shouldn’t be greedy and invest in some good vinegars, oils, spices and pastes – you will definitely taste the difference!

So let’s talk a little bit about the ingredients. I personally prefer high quality olive oil. But also sesame oil, sunflower oil or rape oil works fine and adds different different aromas. Usually, if I have to mix a quick vinaigrette, I just use salt, a bit of mustard, apple vinegar and oil together with a bit of water. But hey – want to create some sensation right? So here are some of my favourite not-so-usual-ingredients:

  • Let’s start with the mustard. Mustards can be spicy, sweet or rather sour. Depending on what kind of lettuce or salad you want to create, you can use all of them. Just be careful: not more than one spoon, because otherwise the whole salad will taste strongly like mustard (I mean ok, if you are a mustard-lover it might be ok though ;-)).
  • Vinegars: have you ever tried different kinds of vinegar? No? You should! It’s the same as with special oils, visit a specialized store where you can taste the different variations and where you can buy also small amounts of it so they won’t get wasted because you store it for too long. There are spicy and sweet ones, super sour and lighter ones. I always have three to four different vinegars at home, just to be prepared for all kinds of purposes.
  • Honey: a small spoon of honey, maybe with a bit of spicy mustard or hot chilis, garlic or soy sauce will suit perfectly to all Asian styles. Try this with shrimps or other seafood – it’s awesome!
  • Tahini / peanut paste: If you want to have a creamy vinaigrette without using milky ingredients like yoghurt or mayonnaise, try these lovely nutty pastes. I personally prefer Tahini, because I find it also easier to mix. Is a nice combination with meat or hearty veggies like beetroot or carrots.
  • Wine: I usually don’t use it too often, but if there’s a little bit left over from the last party, I sometimes exchange the vinegar with wine. You might choose this when you have ingredients like mushrooms or nuts.
  • Tomato paste: especially very bitter lettuce can take a bit of tomato paste in the vinaigrette, it will make it less bitter and for example, mixed with basil, it will add a mediterranean touch.
  • Ah, mediterranean… pesto is a perfect base for a good dressing. Just mix it with a bit of lemon juice and water – there is already enough oil in it. This is lovely when you have a salad with grilled chicken. Or a pasta salad.
  • Grated parmesan or other spicy hard cheese (like gruyere, Austrian cheese from the mountains): works perfectly with bitter autumn salads or a caesar’s salad
  • Fresh herbs are always a nice companion to other high quality ingredients.
  • You can always exchange vinegar with lemon or other fruit juices. Pomegranate, cranberry, grapefruit, orange or cloudy apple – if it gets too sweet I recommend some apple vinegar to mix. Especially salads made of grains like bulgur or also lentils love this kind of sauce, as well as raw vegetables like asparagus. And if you want to add some fish to your salad, dressings with citrus fruits are always great.

How I mix it? I either use a fork or egg whip in a glass or bowl to stir or I just use a jar with a screw cap, put all the ingredients into it, close it and shake. This method also has the big advantage that you can prepare more and store it until the next day.

I hope you will get as excited as I am once you’ve tried something else than vinegar and oil. I am sure there many many more interesting variations, but at least I could give you an idea what you could try.

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