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Perfect Match : Improving the Classic Oil-and-Vinegar Dressing

March 15, 1987|BETSY BALSLEY | Betsy Balsley is The Times' food editor.

THERE SEEMS TO BE A mystique about oil-and-vinegar salad dressings that baffles even experienced cooks. Yet, these are among the simplest ways to flavor salads of all types. The coating properties of the oil and the flavor of the vinegar combine to create a perfect base for additional flavorings such as herbs or spices.

With many exotic oils and unusual-flavored vinegars to be found in upscale markets these days, it would seem to be a snap to create a dressing or a marinade with universal appeal. Not so. At times cooks hesitate to experiment with oil-and-vinegar combinations. Sometimes the problem stems from lack of familiarity with different oils and vinegars. Other cooks simply may not trust their own sense of taste. In either case, the solution is easy--and fun. Setting up a taste test of various oil-and-vinegar combinations is a good way to develop a sense of what various dressings taste like.

Buy small bottles of three or four different oils--a dark and a light extra-virgin olive oil, walnut oil, avocado oil, grape-seed oil and at least one of the more or less flavorless oils such as safflower. Then pick up a group of flavored vinegars--raspberry, Sherry, Champagne and / or other red- and white-wine vinegars, balsamic, rice and a good basic cider vinegar. Find a box of plain soda crackers, chop some celery and carrot sticks to snack on when you need to clear your palate, then start tasting. It won't be long before you find oil-and-vinegar combinations that suit your taste. At that point you can begin to think about herbs or other additions that would blend well with the various mixtures. How about rosemary with a Champagne-vinegar-and-walnut-oil combination? Or a touch of Chinese five-spice powder with a rice-vinegar-and-grape-seed-oil mixture? Try using that dressing to flavor a Chinese chicken salad.

The possibilities for using the various oil-and-vinegar combinations are limitless. Some dressings make superb marinades for meat and poultry. Some add zest to steamed vegetables. Still others will provide flavor to hot pasta.

And don't be bound by so-called rules about oil-and-vinegar dressings. For years, the traditional proportions for a basic dressing were three to four parts oil to one part vinegar. Ideas change, however, and that recipe is often too oily for today's tastes, particularly if one is using a high-flavor oil such as a heavier olive oil. So start with a one-to-one proportion and take it from there.

Once you have an appealing oil-and-vinegar blend, decide on the extra flavorings you want to add. The best way to add the extras is to first stir them into the vinegar and add the oil last. A teaspoon or so of water per cup of mixed dressing and a dash of sugar will reduce acidity when that is desirable. Add water and sugar to the vinegar before adding the oil.

The following list of oils, vinegars and flavorings suggests some possible dressing combinations.

OILS: Olive (light to dark, extra-virgin and virgin); safflower; peanut; cottonseed; walnut; avocado; grape-seed, and hazelnut.

VINEGARS: White-wine; red-wine; Champagne; blueberry-orange; raspberry; balsamic (use sparingly); rice; distilled white; assorted fruit, and herb.

EXTRA FLAVORINGS: Fresh or dried herbs; spices (curry, dry mustard, cloves, turmeric, chili powder, etc.); fresh garlic; grated onion; chives; beer; chili sauce; honey; hot-pepper sauce; chopped hard-cooked eggs; tomato paste; diced, cooked beets; Roquefort cheese or other blue-veined cheeses; lemon or orange peel or zest; lemon, lime or orange juice; wine (Sherry, sauterne, Madeira or Port); diced chiles; shredded or minced ginger root, and soy sauce.

PRODUCED BY ROBIN TUCKER

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