Open your refrigerator: how many bottles of salad dressing are lurking in the door? If you’re an average American shopper, you add one or two bottles to that sticky collection every couple of months.
Yet you don’t actually need a single one. Those bottled dressings, even the expensive and all-natural versions, contain ingredients like corn syrup, cheap vegetable oil, monosodium glutamate and any number of unnecessary stabilizers and gums.
And they aren’t really more convenient than a basic vinaigrette made from real ingredients — which can also live happily and indefinitely in the refrigerator door. There’s a notion among purists that homemade dressing must be made from scratch for every single salad. These are the same people who scorn salad greens in plastic tubs, wash every leaf individually, and tell you to rub your olive-wood salad bowl with a garlic clove. As Maggie Smith proclaimed in “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,” “For those who like that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing they like.”
I don’t like.
What I like is to shake up a pint of classic vinaigrette once a week or so, nothing more than olive oil, vinegar, shallots and mustard, and stick it in the refrigerator until I need it. It takes about seven minutes and makes a bright, fresh green salad an immediate possibility any night of the week. If the goal is to add a green vegetable to your dinner (and when is it not?), this is a whole lot easier than roasting brussels sprouts or sautéing green beans, and nearly as nutritionally effective. To the salad you can add slivered red peppers, half-moons of cucumber, toasted pine nuts, halved grape tomatoes, soft herbs like parsley or mint — or nothing at all.
This dressing has never gone “off” or rancid, or failed to be anything but fragrant and delicious. The flavor of the oil may not be as exquisite after week two, but with all the other strong flavors in the jar, it really doesn’t matter. The secret seems to be in the shallots, which continue to soften and sweeten in the vinegar for as long as you keep the dressing, adding a round, bright flavor for as long as you keep it around.
In the refrigerator, the olive oil will clump together, but a half-hour at room temperature (or resting next to the stove) will liquefy it again.
I wouldn’t do this with all dressings; the taste of garlic and anchovies tends to get stronger over time, and the acidic fragrance of lemon juice gets weaker.
But with robust vinegar and shallots, this dressing is itself a pantry staple that can be tweaked each time you use it. Just before serving, pour out the amount you need, then add anchovy paste, garlic and lemon zest to make a Caesar dressing. Or whisk in feta cheese, lemon juice and fresh oregano for a Greek salad. Or blend in some honey to make the flavor more appealing to children. Or thin it with crème fraîche and minced chives to make a French-accented creamy dressing.
Last, adding toasted bread or croutons, nuggets of good bacon and poached or sunny-side-up eggs can turn any of these salads into a full meal. And unless you’re going to live on Hot Pockets, dinner doesn’t get much easier than that