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Viva vinaigrette: Whisk your own dressing
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Viva vinaigrette: Whisk your own dressing

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Break the bottle habit and whisk up your own salad dressing. It takes just a little time and a few ingredients.

V for vinegar. W for water. O for oil.

If these letters look familiar, chances are you have or have had a Good Seasons vinaigrette cruet, too.

The glass container – with the plastic lid and the measurement lines etched into the glass showing how much vinegar, water and oil to use – showed me how to make my first homemade vinaigrettes.

The cruet rests in the back of my pantry (it's one of the few containers that I haven't lost the lid to, and for that reason alone it's worth keeping), but I still remember pouring in the herbs that came with it and giving the whole thing a good shaking.

It's funny now thinking back to those times when missing one of those V-W-O marks sent me into a panic.

I'm reminded of that easy vinaigrette each summer as warm weather arrives and cool refreshing salads move from side dishes to main courses.

Vinaigrettes may sound sophisticated and fancy, but they're not. In fact, some of the best I've ever made – having outgrown the packaged herbs – have just three or four ingredients and can be thrown together in a matter of minutes.

Janet Aardema echoed those thoughts.

As co-owner of Broadfork Farm in Chesterfield County, and a busy mom of three children, Aardema said, "I tell people if I can do it, they can do it."

Her farm is known for its salad greens and the healthy salad dressings that they make there to go with them, so it's no surprise that salads are a regular part of her family's daily meals.

And typically, a simple vinaigrette is one of the last things she whips up – or rather, shakes up in a Mason jar – before everyone sits down to eat.

"People get pretty intimidated making salad dressings," she said, "but they're so easy to make."

The beauty of making your own vinaigrettes is the endless flavor possibilities, said chef Martin Gravely of the University of Richmond's Center for Culinary Arts.

Once you learn a few techniques, you won't even need measuring spoons or cups.

"It's very empowering," Gravely said, "because you can create a million different recipes of your own using the same basic technique."

So where do you start?

Vinaigrettes have three basic parts: the vinegar, the extra stuff that you'll add for flavor and emulsion, and the oil.

The general rule of thumb is 3-to-1, three parts oil to one part vinegar. Some use a 1-3-5 ratio, one part extras, three parts vinegar and five parts oil.

So go into your pantries and cupboards and pull out some vinegar – balsamic is popular, but any will do. Basic white vinegar, apple cider, red wine or white wine – use what you've got, and don't be afraid to blend them.

(If you're out of vinegar, fresh lemon or orange juices will satisfy the need for the acidity in the vinaigrette.)

Next, find your extras. This is where the sky's the limit. If you've been blessed with lots of basil or tarragon this year, this is a good way to use it up. Add some seasoning salts, crushed red peppers or freshly cracked black pepper.

Nicholas Miller, CSA garden manager at Waverly Farms in Burkeville, is a fan of French and wild sorrel, an herb with a mild citrus flavor that grows abundantly in this region.

He pairs the herbs with olive oil and light balsamic or white-wine vinegar, which won't overpower the flavor of the sorrel.

And with its hints of citrus, "a squeeze of fresh lemon brings out [that flavor] even more," he said.

In addition to herbs or seasonings, you also need something to give your vinaigrette some oomph, to thicken it so it coats your salad and doesn't all end up as a slick puddle on the bottom of your plate.

Emulsifiers are ingredients such as Dijon mustard and honey. Start with a spoonful or two and add more depending on your preferences for taste and thickness.

Lastly, choose your oils. Like vinegars, the options are many.

Miller claims to be an olive-oil purist, though he recommended coconut and even avocado oils.

Aardema and Gravely, on the other hand, often go for variety by blending two or more oils.

Canola oil, for example, is a good choice for those who don't want a strong olive-oil flavor. Try mixing it with small amounts of sesame or sunflower oils.

Once you've got your ingredients, all that's left to do is mix them.

Many recipes suggest mixing the vinegars and extras first before slowly incorporating the oils either by hand or in a food processor or blender.

Me? I'm a big fan of throwing everything in any jar with a lid and using good old-fashioned muscle power to get what I need.

Old habits are hard to break.

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Classic White Wine-Dijon Vinaigrette

Makes 3 to 4 tablespoons

1 teaspoon white-wine vinegar

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

Pinch of fresh or dried tarragon

Pinch EACH: salt and pepper

2 to 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

 In a medium bowl, whisk all ingredients together except olive oil. While whisking relatively vigorously and constantly, drizzle the oil into the mixture slowly until desired consistency is attained. Adjust to taste and toss with salad greens. Serve immediately. Chef Martin Gravely, Center for Culinary Arts, University of Richmond

 Sesame Shiitake Vinaigrette

Makes about 1 cup

 ½ cup salad oil (canola)

 1/3  cup cider vinegar

3 tablespoons reduced-sodium soy sauce

2 tablespoons water

 4 teaspoons roasted sesame oil

4 teaspoons sesame seeds

8 slices dried shiitake mushroom, finely chopped

 1/16  teaspoon xanthan gum, optional

 Mix all ingredients together in a Mason jar or bowl and whisk vigorously. (Note, if using the xanthan gum, use a blender to combine all of the ingredients.) Janet Aardema, Broadfork Farm, Chesterfield County

Asian-Style Ginger and Lime Dressing

Makes 3 to 4 tablespoons

1½ teaspoons fresh lime juice

1 teaspoon low-sodium soy sauce

1 teaspoon mirin (a kind of rice wine)

½ teaspoon honey

¼ teaspoon finely minced fresh ginger

Small dash of sesame oil

Pinch EACH: salt and pepper

2 to 3 tablespoons peanut oil

In a medium bowl, whisk all ingredients together except the peanut oil. While whisking relatively generously and constantly, drizzle the oil into the mixture slowly until desired consistency is attained. Adjust to taste and toss with salad greens. Serve immediately.

Chef Martin Gravely, Center for Culinary Arts, University of Richmond

Summertime Dressing

Makes 6 cups

1 cup balsamic vinegar

2 cups orange juice

1 cup finely chopped mandarin oranges

2 cups ruby red grapefruit juice (sweet variety, not sour)

4 teaspoons sugar

8 teaspoons olive oil

4 small bunches fresh cilantro, finely diced

Mix all ingredients and refrigerate. Use over salads.

Note: This dressing also can be used as a marinade for chicken. Put boneless chicken in a large freezer bag and pour in marinade, reserving some, if desired, for a dipping sauce or salad dressing. Refrigerate chicken overnight. When ready to cook, discard marinade.

Tony Potter, area manager for Performance Food Groups/Roma, former owner of Potter’s Pub

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