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As April finds its way to our doors, many of us will respond by inviting it into our home for a meal of nature's freshest produce. The spring season calls for salads. And salads, of course, call for dressings. So, taking a slight departure from our regular focus, this month's column will touch on some of the things that are good to have on hand when salad season comes your way!
Some of the nicest salads I've ever had were simply splashed with a little oil and vinegar, so that's where I'll focus my attention. First, let's talk oils. My pantry would be naked without a bottle of high-quality extra virgin olive oil. It's my oil of choice when making homemade salad dressings and is great for dipping and making hummus. Of course, it doesn't stop there. Here are some of the other oils that I enjoy having around the kitchen for making dressings (and a whole lot more):
Grape seed Oil
Specialty Nut Oils -- think Hazelnut or Almond
Infused Oils -- I love Garlic-Rosemary and Chili Oils
I avoid flavoring my own oils. Pure oils are stored at room temperature without concern for spoilage or food borne pathogens. This is because, in their unaltered state, oils don't have enough moisture content to support the growth of microorganisms. However, when other ingredients are added to the oil, both the moisture and microorganisms the ingredients may contain are enough to make infused oils dangerous. This danger is compounded when oils are kept at room temperature. If you ever attempt to infuse your own oils, I highly recommend that they be refrigerated and used quickly. Given the dangers involved and the high number of highly satisfying blends readily available to home chefs, I prefer purchasing commercially-produced oils that don't suffer the same troubles that homemade ones can. Besides, when such wonderful options such as roasted garlic-rosemary and lemon with sun dried tomato are out there, it gives all cause to celebrate our salad days!
Of course, the natural accompaniment to oil is vinegar and the choices there seem even more amazing. I love bold, fruity vinegars that are influenced by the flavors of wine and fruit. Among my favorite are:
Red/White Wine Vinegars
Mulberry Vinegar -- try raspberry vinegar as a substitute
Rice Wine Vinegar
The list doesn't really stop there. That's because vinegars are one of the many culinary products that I enjoy custom-flavoring at home. It does require a bit of patience while flavors infuse, but it's a well-rewarded wait. Simply make sure that you flavor and store your vinegars in sterilized glass containers and non-corrodible caps or lids and use very clean flavoring additives. To use fresh herbs for flavoring, allow 3 to 4 sprigs per pint (2 cups) of vinegar. Use very fresh herbs, picked before blossoming, for the best flavor. Raspberries, blackberries, strawberries, peaches, pears and the peel of lemons and oranges all make great flavorings for vinegar. Use 1 to 2 cups of fruit per pint of vinegar, or the peel of one orange or lemon per pint of vinegar.
To flavor your own vinegar at home, place your chosen prepared herbs, fruits and/or spices in sterilized jars. In a saucepan, heat the vinegar to just below the boiling point, or at least 190-195° F. Pour the hot liquid over the flavoring ingredients in the jars, taking care to leave 1/4-inch headspace. Wipe the rims of the jars with a clean, damp cloth. Attach the lids, corks or screw caps tightly. Then, let the jars sit to cool undisturbed.
Allow the vinegar to sit undisturbed in a cool, dark place for 3 to 4 weeks to develop its flavors (you'll need to check the vinegar periodically to taste it and determine if it suits your needs). Once ready, strain the vinegar through a damp cheesecloth or coffee filter one or more times until the vinegar shows no cloudiness. Discard any fruit or herbs.
Pour the strained vinegar into clean sterilized jars and cap tightly. A few clean berries or a washed and sanitized sprig of fresh herb may be added to the jars before closing them for decoration and "labeling", if desired.
I hope this brief look into the world of the simple -- yet unparalleled -- combination of oil and vinegar has inspired you to take another look at salads this month. Even the simplest bowl of fresh greens becomes a gourmet's dream when dressed with an elegant combination of these made-for-each-other ingredients. Happy eating!