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Use vinaigrette plain or dress it up

(ran SP, NP, TP editions)

Vinaigrette is like a basic black dress. It is useful in so many ways, most cooks find they can't do without it. Nothing beats this elixir over fresh greens, but it isn't just for tossed salads.

Vinaigrette also is a fine marinade. Use it to flavor the boneless chicken breasts you barbecue this summer.

It is also a versatile sauce. Serve it with steamed artichokes or boiled lobster. You won't miss the melted butter.

How fortunate that vinaigrette is so easy to prepare. In fact, it's a stretch to say there's a recipe. At its core, it is simply a blend of vegetable oil and vinegar.

We will explain how to make a basic vinaigrette, then show you how to build on the basic recipe to create several other versions, then we'll make suggestions for using them.

To make vinaigrette, whisk the ingredients in a small bowl or give them a good shake in a screw-top jar. The usual ratio is about 3 parts vegetable oil to 1 part vinegar, but it really depends on how you're using the dressing and on how tangy you like it.

What distinguishes a winning recipe is the type of vegetable oil and vinegar you use. A premium, extra-virgin olive oil can make all the difference. This lush, silky liquid, from the first cold-pressing of the olive, enhances the ingredients. Supermarket "pure" olive oils, from the third pressing, have a heavier taste and feel and can be overwhelming.

French olive oil is pressed from unripe olives and is pale yellow with a mild flavor. Spanish, Italian and Greek olive oils are darker green and stronger tasting.

The choice of one over the other depends on whether the salad ingredients are delicate (Bibb lettuce and crabmeat, for example) or can stand up to a more assertive dressing (Romaine lettuce, blue cheese, onion).

You might also consider specialty oils: hazelnut oil vinaigrette on a salad of poached chicken breast or sesame seed oil vinaigrette over tomatoes. Other vegetable oils (corn, canola, peanut) may also be used.

Vinegar selection presents a number of choices. White vinegar is too sharp; wine vinegar offers the needed tang without the bitterness.

It should have a pleasantly piquant smell. Avoid harsh or overpowering varieties. A better wine vinegar, like a better wine, should have a rich, complex taste that provides a depth of flavor for food. It may cost a few pennies more than supermarket brands, but you'll notice the difference.

The choice of vinegar may also have to do with the ingredients you're dressing. While red wine vinegar is standard for many salads, white wine vinegar, which is milder, may be a better choice for pale foods such as potato and pasta salads.

Sherry and champagne vinegars are slightly sweet, so consider them for salads made with pork, duck and chicken. Asian rice vinegar, also mild, is especially nice with shrimp, rice and noodle salads.

Flavored vinegars contain herbs, condiments or other flavorings. These usually cost more and usually aren't worth it _ you can always add your own thyme, mustard, shallots and such.

Balsamic vinegar is a dense, dark nectar made from very sweet grapes. The liquid is aged in wood barrels for years, where it picks up its rich color.

It has a higher acid content than regular wine vinegar, yet is sweet and aromatic rather than astringent. Aged, vintage aceto balsamico tradizionale is expensive and is meant to be a condiment, not a salad dressing.

Although it's called vinaigrette, you can substitute other acidic liquids such as citrus fruit juices. Caesar salad dressing is always made with a lemon-juice vinaigrette.

Once you combine the oil and vinegar, you can make what you will with a vinaigrette. Add salt, pepper, a bit of mustard. Blend in a small amount of tomato paste, plain yogurt or paprika.

Season it with almost any herb or combination of herbs. Add shallots, sun-dried tomatoes, anchovies or roasted red pepper to spike the flavor. Sprinkle in lemongrass or ginger to give it vivacity. Let your imagination work to make vinaigrette a sauce of a thousand faces.

What you add depends on what you're going to dress. A hearty steak salad can take a robust mustard vinaigrette. Grilled swordfish is tasty when marinated in a lemon-thyme vinaigrette. Try grilled shrimp marinated in vinaigrette that includes rosemary and shallots.

As a health precaution, discard any vinaigrette you use as a marinade. Prepare extra vinaigrette for use as a sauce or use only a portion of the dressing as a marinade, reserving the rest for sauce.

Basic Vinaigrette Dressing

{ cup vegetable oil

3 tablespoons wine vinegar

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard, optional

{ teaspoon salt or to taste, optional

Freshly ground black pepper or to taste, optional

Combine ingredients in bowl and whisk them together until well-blended, or place them in tightly covered jar and shake for several seconds until they are well-blended. Taste dressing for seasoning and add salt and pepper as desired. Makes about } cup.

Mustard-Shallot Vinaigrette

{ cup vegetable oil

3 tablespoons red wine or sherry vinegar

1 shallot, diced

1{ tablespoons Dijon mustard

1 teaspoon. Worcestershire sauce, optional

3-4 anchovies, mashed, optional

{ teaspoon salt or to taste

Ground black pepper, to taste

Combine ingredients in bowl; whisk together until well-blended. Or place in tightly covered jar and shake for several seconds (or in a blender) until they are well-blended. Taste the vinaigrette for seasoning and add salt and pepper as desired. Makes about } cup.

Steak Salad With Mustard-Shallot Vinaigrette

Mustard-Shallot Vinaigrette, preferably made with Worcestershire sauce and anchovies

24-ounce beef steak (sirloin or rib)

8 cups cut up lettuce

3 dozen olives

4 tomatoes, cut up

Steamed broccoli tops or green beans

{ cup crumbled blue cheese

Prepare vinaigrette. Place meat in a ceramic, glass or stainless steel dish. Pour { cup of the dressing over the meat. Turn the meat to coat both sides. Marinate for 1 hour.

Grill the meat to the desired doneness. Let it rest 10 minutes before slicing.

Place the lettuce on each of four plates. Slice the meat and place equal amounts of it on each plate. Scatter the olives, tomatoes, vegetable and blue cheese over each plate. Use the remaining vinaigrette as a dressing for the salad. Makes 4 servings.

Chive-Oregano Vinaigrette

6 tablespoons olive oil

\ cup Champagne or white wine vinegar or lemon juice

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard, optional

1{ tablespoons chopped fresh oregano (or 1{ teaspoon dried)

2 tablespoons chopped chives

{ teaspoon salt or to taste

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

Combine ingredients in a bowl and whisk together until well-blended, or place in tightly covered jar and shake for several seconds (or in blender) until well-blended. Taste the vinaigrette for seasoning and add salt and pepper as desired. Makes about } cup.

Potato Salad With Chive-Oregano Vinaigrette

2 pounds small boiling potatoes, preferably red bliss

Scallion-Oregano Vinaigrette

Cook the potatoes in lightly salted water until they are fork tender. Drain the potatoes, then cut them into bite-sized pieces. (You may peel them if desired.)

While potatoes are still warm, make vinaigrette. Pour dressing over potatoes, toss and let salad rest for at least 1 hour. Serve at room temperature. Makes 4-6 servings.

Tomato Salad With Sesame Vinaigrette

cup rice wine vinegar

2{ tablespoons sesame seed oil

1 large scallion, chopped

{ teaspoon ground Sichuan peppercorns

Salt to taste

3 large, sliced tomatoes

Combine vinegar, oil, scallion and peppercorns in bowl; whisk together until well-blended. Or place in tightly covered jar and shake several seconds (or in blender) until well-blended. Taste and add salt as desired. Pour over tomatoes; serve. Makes 4 servings.

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