I recently raised the stakes for cooking, taking it from a purely pleasurable activity to one that will feed Matt and me daily and save about 200% in weekly food bills. Those in New York who cook are miles ahead of me, and those who don’t, I pity your restaurant and pizza tabs. I held out on cooking as a means because I hate the thought of even having the desire to buy things “pre-,” as in packaged, marinaded, etc. You have the right to slap me if I ever make a positive claim about how easy Whole Foods has made cooking. Feeling lazy when you eat out means going to your local. Feeling lazy when you cook for yourself means heading to the front of Whole Foods before the scary hour of 9 when the last buckets are dwindling at the trough.
Anyways, I am bending on my own terms. Cooking for pure pleasure meant daily trips to the market to select ingredients based on whim, finding the recipes when I returned, taking as long as I wanted to chop the herbs, and generally spending much of our evenings leisurely in the kitchen. Mmmmmmm… but there are other equally pleasurable things to do in the evening. As well, this practice was costing a third of our total income. So OK, maybe I can cook what I want and do it with a little bit of planning, fewer trips to the store, and use the same ingredients to assemble both dinner AND lunch. Besides, the amount of little bits of this and that I threw out was enough for soup stock for a French bistro.
It has now been three weeks, and while I am still spending too much time in line at Whole Foods, I have successfully made Matt and myself breakfast, lunch, and dinner with a third the cost. But WHATEVER on saved money. My first winning moment has been to discover the merit of saving time on salad dressing. No, this does not mean I bought the horrific sugary and preservative-laden stuff from the grocery store. But I have realized I do not need to mix a fresh batch of vinaigrette every time I make a salad. I know, BABY STEPS. But I am determined to find a way to cook food efficiently without converting my kitchen into a domestic factory.
So, dressings. Good vinaigrettes require purchasing decent staples in the way of oils and vinegars, and the general restocking of spices, acids, sweet elements, and of course herbs. With oils and vinegars it’s also important to buy the darker bottles, place them in a nook in the kitchen away from heat and light, and replace them every six months (or as directed based on the oil – Flaxseed lasts only a couple weeks). With fresh ingredients it is essential to get just that – herbs, aliums, and acids that don’t look dead or dying. I generally make sure to have a few stocked from each of the basic categories:
Acids: Lemons, limes, oranges, grapefruits, white or red wine vinegar, balsamic vinegar, rice wine vinegar, cider vinegar, champagne vinegar
Bite: shallot, garlic, ginger
Spices, kicks, etc: Dijon mustard, whole seed mustard, cayenne pepper, paprika, white and black peppercorns or mountain berries, sesame seeds, mustard seeds, cumin, anise seed, hot peppers
Oils: Sesame oil, extra virgin olive oil, flaxseed oil (sometimes)
Herbs (depending on the season): Marjoram, chervil, chives, basil, mint, oregano, thyme, rosemary, lemon verbena, cilantro, parsley (flat leaf Italian), tarragon
Sweets: Honey, jams, figs, fruit spreads, raw sugar, brown sugar
Salts: Soy sauce, olives, sea salt
Bitters: The bitters are generally taken care of by arugula, watercress, treviso, etc, so I don’t find the need to incorporate these into dressing.
I prefer a ratio of 1:5 oil:vinegar. For an example of how I would incorporate some of the above ingredients by ratio, if I’m doing a dressing of a half cup of oil, I will add in a clove of garlic, 1/2 shallot, 1 tablespoon honey, and 1 tablespoon mustard. Herbs are always washed, the larger ones chiffonade, and then chopped. Shallot, garlic, and herbs should be roughly the same size.
Don’t blindly take my word for it, but if you keep your basic categories covered, the results are almost always positive. The way I approach dressing is to figure out what ingredients I’ll be using for the week, and then decide whether or not I want augment certain ingredients or contrast them in the dressing. So say I have arugula, watercress, sweet peppers, pine nuts, goat cheese, olives, and cucumbers. If I decide I really want the arugula to stand out, I will probably make the salad dressing really peppery, which will also nicely contrast the goat cheese. If I need something neutral to go with both the olives and the almonds, I will chose to stick with the more neutral lemon vinaigrette, using a limited number of herbs (maybe marjoram), and maybe adding in some sweet white wine vinegar or a little honey. You get the idea?
So far, when making a dressing in advance, I have been trying to make it thick enough that the ingredients don’t separate. Dressings are endlessly forgiving, especially if you’re making them in bulk. You can always cover up mistakes, change the balance, or introduce new ingredients to totally alter the flavor. Whisk all the ingredients together before each taste, and each time before you use it. Place the dressing in a sealed tight glass container for the week, and relish in how magical it is to have your own homemade and what little effort.
(After you’ve tried it out for a week, throw out the Annies and whatever other bottles you have lurking in your fridge door, at least the ones with their lids crusted with some dried sugary muck.)