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When it comes to making the perfect vinaigrette, Julia Child has it figured out

Julia Child’s Basic Vinaigrette adapted from “Julia’s Kitchen Wisdom: Essential Techniques and Recipes from a Lifetime of Cooking.”
Julia Child’s Basic Vinaigrette adapted from “Julia’s Kitchen Wisdom: Essential Techniques and Recipes from a Lifetime of Cooking.” Fred Thompson

I’m really excited. My CSA has started.

What’s a CSA? The letters stand for Community Supported Agriculture, a relationship between farmers and us, the consumer. We buy a share of what the farmer grows and raises in advance and then receive a box full of goodness weekly for several months.

It’s good for the farmer as we fund their farm operations without them carrying debt, or at least not as much. And for us, we get the freshest and most seasonal ingredients, days, if not hours straight from the farm.

That’s the simple version. Some CSAs just do vegetables, some offer pasture perfect meats, some both. The CSA concept has grown into seafood and even baked goods. Many CSAs have turned to online stores, giving you control over what comes in your box and have started home delivery.

Along with farmers’ markets and CSAs, we have the opportunity to always have the very best food supply.

While I long for that first perfect tomato for summer, along with squash and field peas, there is lots to work with now. One group of veggies that I always look forward to is young and tender lettuces. The perfection of a salad made with these spring greens is remarkable.

However, let’s not screw them up with some store-bought dressing. Why would you want to cover up the flavor of excellence? For these greens, you want to dress them in a light coating that makes them happy and will give you a whole new outlook on salad.

In the words of Julia Child, “The perfect vinaigrette is so easy to make that I see no reason whatsoever for bottled dressings.”

Amen. End of subject, next column.

Of course, I know that a bottle of ranch will need to be in the refrigerator of the kids. Why would you cover up the loveliness of freshness with something not as fresh?

Vinaigrettes are nothing more than a mixture of oil and vinegar with additional seasonings added. Child continues on the subject of this dressing: “The beauty lies solely in the quality of your ingredients. Note that you will so often see proportions of 1 part vinegar to 3 parts oil, but that can make a very acid, very vinegary vinaigrette. I use the proportions of a very dry martini, since you can always add more vinegar or lemon but you can’t take it out.”

A woman after my own heart, both on the proportions and on the martini.

Julia’s recipe has always been my starting point. From there you can make this your own. Change the vinegar or the oil. (I’ll use walnut or hazelnut oil on occasion.) Add some fresh herbs like thyme or tarragon. Change the mustard to a country-style grainy type.

When tomatoes hit this summer, add some basil, then pour over sliced tomatoes. Use the vinaigrette as a sub dressing. The addition of rosemary makes for a nice finish for pork chops or grilled pork tenderloin. Asparagus with some chopped boiled eggs and this dressing is heavenly.

Look into a CSA, and give this dressing a try. Julia would be proud.

Fred Thompson is a Raleigh cookbook author and publisher of Edible Piedmont magazine. Reach him at fdtfx1@earthlink.net.

Serving suggestions

▪ A simple mix of spring greens, maybe with a little Roquefort cheese sprinkled over. What a great accompaniment to a grilled steak. Also try this: Slice or chunk some new potatoes, then boil them in salted water until knife tender. Drain, and toss with the vinaigrette for an outstanding potato salad. Also don’t hesitate to drizzle some on fish or chicken.

▪ Drink: If you are having that steak with your salad, a big red, maybe a California Zinfandel. Be sure and send up a toast for Julia.

Julia Child’s Basic Vinaigrette

Adapted from “Julia’s Kitchen Wisdom: Essential Techniques and Recipes from a Lifetime of Cooking,” (Alfred A. Knopf, 2000)

1/2 tablespoon finely minced shallot

1/2 tablespoon Dijon-type mustard

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice

1/2 tablespoon wine vinegar

1/3 –1/2 cup excellent olive oil (extra virgin)

Freshly ground pepper

Shake all the ingredients together in a screw-topped jar, or mix them individually as follows. Stir the shallots together with the mustard and salt. Whisk in the lemon juice and vinegar, and when well blended, start whisking in the oil by droplets to form a smooth emulsion. Beat in the fresh pepper. Taste (dip a piece of salad greens into the dressing) and correct the seasoning with salt, pepper and/or drops of lemon juice. If you have overdone the oil, salt will correct it.

You can also use a food processor, blender or my favorite tool for this process, a mini food processor.

Dress your salad lightly at first, tossing to coat. The idea is to add to the greens, not smother the greens. A little goes a long way.

Leftover dressing holds for about a week, tightly covered in the refrigerator.

Yield: 6-8 servings, makes about 2/3 cup

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