Friday, March 7, 2008
Dressing My Wounds
Revisiting my trip to Paris a few years ago, I can't help but hang on to the memory of the many salads I ate during my short trip. I very rarely order or make salads these days, and generally don't care for them the way I know that many others do. But something about the crisp leaves and clean flavors in every Parisian dressing stood out to me. The salads weren't merely a vehicle for 87 toppings or a reservoir of cheesy dressing, but instead felt like the true beginning of a meal--something that opens and refreshes your palette, without lingering or filling you up. Tried as I might to get the recipe from Jacques, Francois or Jean-Claude, not one waiter in Paris was willing to tell me what was in the dressing. It was the same one in every bistro, and for all I knew it came in a jar with a twist off cap, but either way I needed to replicate it for myself--or have several boxes shipped to my home.
I've spent the years since that trip experimenting with various recipes in an attempt to recreate that dressing. It was like a less pungent vinaigrette with a slightly creamy texture and a color that couldn't quite be considered milky white. My first thought was that it was just a simple vinaigrette emulsified with Dijon mustard. Although the flavor was somewhat similar, we weren't even in the same league. The color and texture weren't even close, so it was back to the drawing board. After some research I came across a few other recipes, and soon I had a long list of interchangeable ingredients. After trying every conceivable permutation of every recipe and running out of room in my pantry (and 15 vinegars later) I decided to give it a rest. Forget the fountain of youth, evidently classic French dressing is the world's best kept secret.
All the Paris talk last week reminded me of my failed mission. Obviously I had to come up with something halfway decent so I could convince myself that I wasn't a complete and utter failure, so I set off to make a successful version of that original dreamy dressing. I don't know what made me think it'd be easier this time around since I'd pretty much tried every ingredient I could think of last time, but I gave it a shot. After testing a few new ingredients and re-jiggering measurements from past recipes (including trying to use 1/4 of an egg yolk--what was I thinking?), it was not only clear that I just wasn't going to nail this one, but that I was losing it. So, in a last ditch attempt to not waste the base mixture I was working with or the lettuce I'd already washed and cut, I added half a tablespoon of some homemade mayonnaise to the mixture.
And wouldn't you know, this was the most successful batch of dressing to date. It was simple, and the consistency was the most similar to the dressing that I'd had in Paris. I shouldn't really be surprised that it worked since the handful of ingredients that make up mayonnaise are among the many that I tried using in the dressing. This isn't exactly what I was looking for, but it'll do as a substitute until I get to the perfect recipe. In the meantime, I'll just have to save up for my next trip to Paris.
Simple Bistro Dressing
1 1/2 Tbsp vinegar (white wine, champagne, and mild light vinegar)
1/4 tsp Dijon mustard
1/2 Tbsp mayonnaise (Fresh is best, but the jarred stuff will do)
pepper (white pepper is best)
1. Combine vinegar, mustard and mayonnaise in a large bowl.
2. Slowly whisk in olive oil until you get the desired consistency (should be about 3 Tbsp). Season with salt and pepper to taste. Enjoy!