Friday, June 8, 2012
Catching flies with vinegar
"It's the dressing that baffles me." I hear that a lot.
Well, I'm paraphrasing, but that's the gist. I'm sure the dressing and marinade industry is making a killing off of people not being confident in creating their own flavor basis.
Lucky them. Now, lucky us.
What does it take? The following:
You need a fat base. Olive oil is a standard, as is canola or vegetable oil, even sesame oil makes an appearance every once in a while. Sometimes it's mayonnaise, sometimes it's bacon fat. Either way, you need something to carry your flavors and create a nice mouth feel.
That tangy bite we crave. Vinegar is the standard, as is citrus juice. The variety here is unbelievable. Take a waltz through your favorite grocery store or fancy foods store and find their vinegar section. Your head may spin. I like to keep several bottles on hand at all times ... for the most part they are: Soy Sauce, Balsamic, Red Wine, White Wine, Rice, Sherry, Champagne, Raspberry, Apple Cider, White. We always have lemons in the house, usually some limes show up ... grapefruit works, too. Oranges are a nice change every once in a while. If you have any of this sitting at home, you can make amazing meals with few other ingredients.
Shallots do really well here. I use them in almost every dressing I make. Also garlic. Paste that stuff through a Microplane or other zesting/pressing tool and there is garlicky goodness throughout whatever it is you're mixing. Then there's herbs. The options here are as endless as the vinegar selection, so I won't bore you with semantics. All I ask is that you try any and all of them. Herb gardens are a great way to give your green thumb a trial run. They practically take care of themselves and many varieties are perennials.
Other flavor enhancers and aromatics include anchovies, citrus zest, chili peppers, black and white pepper, wine, juices ... let your imagination run wild. I love to add mustard- dijon or a stone-ground spicy something-or-other- which adds a thickness and a flavor that is hard to beat.
Sometimes you have to add a little something to manage all those flavors. Acid can create quite a bite and some sweetener helps bring your concoction from the brink. Maple syrup, brown sugar, honey, and agave syrup are favorites of mine. Sometimes all you need is just a pinch, but it makes such a difference. If you can't shake getting the shakes when trying your concoction, add some sweet.
And trust your palate. Don't be afraid to try new things. Here are some old standbys of mine (keep in mind, oil:vinegar is equal to 3:1):
Lemon-Anything (This shows up in a lot of my cooking):
Red Wine & Herbs (Very flexible, works great on grains)
Red Wine Vinegar
Red Pepper Flakes
Toasted Sesame Oil
Red Pepper Flakes
Like I said, sky is the limit. Just keep these rules in mind and you're golden. Marinate meats and veggies, dress salads and sides, roast anything and everything with these guys and you're made in the shade.
Tasting for quality is a metaphor for life, just remember that it is easier to add an element than it is to take it away.