All-Purpose Vinaigrette

People tell me all the time how they’d love to cook but … And they fill in the blank with excuses about not having the time, the energy, or the wherewithal. I always respond with some variation of “But it’s so easy!”
I don’t mean to sound patronizing. I realize my response may be off-putting coming from a professional cook. Of course it’s easy for me — I do it every day. For someone who avoids cooking the way I avoid doing my taxes — and I really avoid doing my taxes — that response probably doesn’t ring true.

I have this quote from Julia Child on the back of my business cards: “You don’t have to cook fancy or complicated masterpieces — just good food from fresh ingredients.” I truly believe that good cooking at its core is a simple affair.

Simple doesn’t always mean easy and rejuvenating. Anyone who’s ever cooked Thanksgiving dinner knows how tiring it can be, and yet it’s worthwhile. I’m never sorry about making the decision to cook rather than ordering a pizza, although there’s always a time and place for pizza.

One of the best ways to incorporate more cooking into your life is to learn three or four skills well enough that you don’t need a rely on a recipe to make them. My friend Mary is a doctor and she’s really good at saving lives, but she’s not about to star on Top Chef. That said, she can make delicious black bean burgers, pasta salad, and peanut butter chicken salad from memory because they’re recipes she grew up eating.

Making vinaigrette is a great example of a simple skill that, once mastered, will open up a new world of opportunities and ideas of what to serve for dinner. Plus it doesn’t require you to turn on the stove.

The general rule of thumb is one part vinegar to three parts oil. That could mean one tablespoon white wine vinegar with three tablespoons of olive oil shaken up and poured over lettuce. Or you could get more creative using different acids, different fats (buttermilk!), adding zests and other flavoring agents like soy sauce, miso, mustards, herbs or different spices. The possibilities are endless, and they all build off that basic ratio.

Keep in mind that vinaigrette doesn’t have to be limited to dressing salads. I like to cook farro in salted warm and season the warm grain with lemony vinaigrette before adding a bunch of cooked veggies. Fry an egg and pour a tall glass of Chablis and you have yourself a lovely little dinner.

If you like things more acidic, add more vinegar. As you continue tasting and practicing, you’ll develop an intuitive sense that will tell you what to add in order for it to taste balanced. In the meantime, happy cooking.


Simple vinaigrette

Makes about 1 cup

  • 1 shallot, minced
  • 1 tablespoon dijon mustard
  • 1/4 cup good red wine vinegar (I like Volpaia)
  • 3/4 cup organic olive oil (Lucini and Seggiano are both readily available in most grocery stores)
  • 2 teaspoons honey
  • Salt and pepper

Macerate (a fancy word meaning soak) the shallot in the vinegar with pinch of salt for five minutes. This smoothes out the harshness of the raw onion flavor.

Add the honey and dijon. Pour the oil over the vinegar mixture and shake up the jar. Alternatively, whisk the oil into the vinegar mixture in a slow, steady stream. Add a couple cracks of black pepper and a couple pinches of salt. Taste and adjust the acidity, oil, and salt to your taste.