Along with the holiday feasting comes that yearning for simpler fare — lighter, brighter dishes to balance the rich, heavy and sweet. Fortunately, our food co-ops and winter farmers markets offer an ever-expanding selection of local vegetables even in the darkest, coldest season of the year.
Find magenta cabbage, beauty heart radishes, carrots in brilliant colors to slice and dice into salads. Or toss roasted sweet potatoes, beets, parsnips or celeriac with crisp green pea shoots, hydroponically grown nearby. Splash them all with a snappy vinaigrette and you have dishes with cheery colors and satisfying crunch.
Vinaigrettes are a balance of one part acid to two or three parts oil, depending on how acidic you prefer the taste. Lemon juice, for example, is less assertive than cider vinegar, so the citrus vinaigrette requires less oil. Experiment and adjust to your liking.
An emulsifier such as mustard gives it a richer, creamier body. Make it a good Dijon, either coarse or smooth. Adding just a touch of sweetness — honey, maple, agave, brown or white sugar — will help to soften and round out the flavors.
When deciding on oils, let taste be your guide. If you like the flavor of the oil straight from the bottle, then you’ll probably like it in the vinaigrette. Extra-virgin olive oils can span the spectrum from bitter to fruity to peppery; if possible, try before you buy. Avoid using refined or light olive oil, which is better for cooking. Distinct tasting oils, such as toasted sesame, walnut and hazelnut, can overpower the other ingredients and are sometimes better combined with neutral oils, such as canola or sunflower. The American Hazelnut Company’s toasted hazelnut oil is locally pressed, deliciously nutty yet light, and good on its own.
When it comes to acids, rely on good quality vinegars and freshly squeezed citrus juice (lemon, lime and grapefruit add zip). Avoid pre-flavored vinegars (such as raspberry balsamic) because they sometimes taste too sweet or artificial.
Though it’s easy enough to make a vinaigrette from scratch, you don’t have to remake one for every salad. Simply put all of the ingredients into a glass jar with a cap and shake, shake, shake. The vinaigrette will keep in the refrigerator for several weeks.
Bring the vinaigrette to room temperature before using so the oil liquefies, then give it another shake. Add any fresh herbs just before using. If you’re making a big batch of the vinaigrette, chop only enough herbs for that one salad. It’s best to start slow with the dressing, and adjust to taste.
Beth Dooley is the author of “In Winter’s Kitchen.” Find her at bethdooleyskitchen.com.