Drizzle vinaigrettes on everything from appetizers to desserts— they're not just for salads anymore.The classic vinaigrette—an emulsion of oil, vinegar, salt, and pepper—is revered as one of the "mother sauces." Chefs doctor it up with spices, herbs, mustard, and other seasonings to create salad dressings. But lately, vinaigrettes are making their way out of the cruet and onto the appetizer and entree plate. A few trendy restaurants are even doing dessert sauces based on the oil-and-acid pairing.
With the wide assortment of oils and vinegars available these days, a vinaigrette can be upgraded with a simple shake from a bottle. But some chefs have upped the ante and started using flavored oils and vinegars, such as red pepper oil and thyme-infused vinegar, and specialty seasonings like pink sea salt, exotic peppers, and countless fresh herbs. Others are substituting citrus juices for the vinegar portion of the recipe, imparting a slightly sweet edge to the blend. And with health playing an important role on today's menus, many chefs are cutting back on the oil and substituting less-caloric thickeners.
Chef Bob Kinkead of Washington, D.C's Kinkead's, a high-end seafood restaurant (avg. check, $55), uses a truffle vinaigrette for his Sea Trout with Celery Three Ways ($29). Most of Kinkead's food doesn't leave the kitchen without a sauce, but in an effort to lighten things up a bit, he's using more vinaigrettes to signaturize menu items.
"I'm not a fan of dishes without a sauce or a liquid enhancement," Kinkead says. "I look for different avenues when it comes to sauces." The chef-owner likes to take a classic vinaigrette and flavor it uniquely (in this case, with truffles). "I do a lot of experimenting with chicken stock for fish sauces. The protein base from the stock gives the vinaigrette a nice 'napping' quality over the food. I also use lobster, shrimp, and fish stocks to thicken vinaigrettes," Kinkead adds.
At Radius, a modern French restaurant in Boston (avg. check, $75), the menu describes chef Michael Schlow's cooking as "a lighter style of cuisine marked by an emphasis on seasonal ingredients, classical technique, and the use of flavored oils, emulsions, juices, and reductions." Toward that end, Schlow has come up with riffs on the usual vinaigrettes.
Two first courses on his tasting menu exemplify his style: Spicy Shrimp with pea tendrils, shaved almonds, and ponzu vinaigrette ($15) and Maine Crab Tart with cucumber, cilantro, and broken cumin vinaigrette ($15). The latter takes a slightly different approach to the classic recipe. Rather than emulsifying the mixture, Schlow lightly whisks reduced balsamic vinegar and browned, cracked cumin seeds with oil and seasonings just to incorporate the ingredients—not to blend them smooth. "The vinaigrette should look 'broken' with visible droplets of vinegar suspended in the oil," the chef points out. He then sprinkles the vinaigrette on the plate around the crab tart, making sure it's not stirred too much so it retains that "broken" look. The vinaigrette is both a flavor enhancer and plate decoration.
Traditional vinaigrettes have been completely cast aside at the Louisville, CO-based Rock Bottom Restaurant and Brewery chain. Instead, chef Susan Ralston has developed a signature vinaigrette with the brewery's own IPA beer.
"Our IPA has good citrus notes that we wanted to accentuate," she says. "The dish we matched with it is a fresh, California-style toss of hearts of palm, blueberries, asparagus, dried apricots, avocado, and sliced tomatoes on a romaine, iceberg and mesclun mix. We top it with shrimp skewered with lemons."
In adding this dish to Rock Bottom's core menu, Ralston had to tinker a bit. Since the brewery only makes IPA for special promotions, she had to find a substitute. She tested the recipe with Rock Bottom's dry-hopped pale ale, a regular selection, and it worked splendidly.
Ralston believes vinaigrettes fit in well with our current craving for bold flavor and health. "Center of the plate proteins can be sauced with a well-balanced vinaigrette and have double appeal," she says.