Everyone needs a good back pocket vinaigrette, mine just happens to be from the writer of When Harry Met Sally.

By Margaret Eby
November 18, 2020
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I don’t believe in many cooking rules, but there are a few I follow religiously. Put your salt in a cellar, not a shaker. Don’t try to mix things in a bowl that’s too small. And have one really good vinaigrette recipe memorized. Salads can be the star of the dinner, but unless I’m making a big one, they end up being an afterthought, a “oh hey we need some green things to accompany this giant lasagna.” In those times, when you’re salvaging the last of the arugula, or gamely attempting to throw together something for a family meal, having a vinaigrette with a formula you know by heart is essential. 

There are many, many variations on vinaigrettes, but the one that's my go-to comes from Nora Ephron’s Heartburn, a charming and often very funny novel about a messy divorce. The protagonist, a fictionalized version of Ephron named Rachel Samstat, is a cookbook author whose husband, Mark, left her for another woman while Rachel was pregnant with their second son. The book is interspersed with recipes, including one for the aforementioned vinaigrette. “Even now, I cannot believe Mark would risk losing that vinaigrette,” Rachel narrates. “You just don’t bump into a vinaigrette that good.”

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Though I haven’t made most of the other recipes from Heartburn, the vinaigrette was too simple not to pick up: “Mix 2 tablespoons Grey Poupon mustard with 2 tablespoons good red wine vinegar. Then, whisking constantly with a fork, slowly add 6 tablespoons olive oil, until the vinaigrette is thick and creamy; this makes a very strong vinaigrette that’s perfect for salad greens like arugula and watercress and endive.”

It’s an easy formula, and one that made its way into my repertoire almost immediately. What’s particularly nice about it is that it’s easy to adjust. A small shallot or a quarter of a red onion, minced, makes a great addition. Some freshly ground black pepper wouldn’t go awry, nor would a pinch of salt, if you want it. Chopped up herbs, like rosemary or thyme, are also excellent additions. If it’s too strong for the greens you’re working with, reduce the mustard (any Dijon will do) by a tablespoon, and add a tablespoon or so of water. If you don’t have red wine vinegar, practically any vinegar will work, as will lemon juice. Balsamic is particularly nice here.  It’s good enough that I have accidentally used it as a steak sauce and was not sorry. 

Sure, you can always have a bottle of dressing at the ready. But having an easy vinaigrette formula at the ready will always serve you. Particularly when there’s a good story behind it.