I remember coming across a book all about herbs at my grandma’s house when I was probably nine or ten years old. I know that herbs don’t sound like something a young girl would be interested in, but I’ve always been a little bit odd. I read the book from cover to cover, poring over the pictures, memorizing the different varieties, and feeling convinced that herbs were somehow magical. The author described how to use herbs to make mouthwash, hair dye, lip balm–things I thought only scientists in labs could create.
There was also an exhaustive list about how to use use herbs for culinary purposes. Something that I’m sure was listed–but didn’t make much of an impression on my nine-year-old self–was using herbs in a vinaigrette. Concocting lip balm seemed much more intriguing back then, but I can assure you now, making your own vinaigrette is much more magical.
Making my own vinaigrette was a total epiphany for me. I had previously bought salad dressing in bottles at the supermarket, and they lingered in my fridge where I barely used them. I liked salads, but they didn’t have much of a “wow” factor for me. Then in an issue of Cook’s Illustrated magazine I saw an article about “Foolproof Vinaigrette.” I made it and realized how really good a salad could be. The Cook’s Illustrated recipe used mustard, shallots, salt, pepper, a little bit of mayonnaise, vinegar, and oil. It is a totally foolproof recipe, but here is really all you need to know: 1 teaspoon vinegar + 1 Tablespoon oil (with salt & pepper, of course) = MAGIC.
This summer I’ve decided to take my homemade vinaigrette up a notch by growing my own herbs. Herbs can be expensive and disappointing to buy at the supermarket. Sometimes the variety you want looks wilted or brown, or isn’t available at all. Growing herbs in pots is really easy, and they are always fresh (as long as you don’t forget to water them). Now is a good time to buy herb plants at garden stores because they are trying to get rid of their summer stock before fall. Each of the herbs I bought today cost $1 at my local garden center. So I got seven varieties of herbs for $7 and they will last for a long time. (Definitely beats buying herbs at $2 a bunch, which only last maybe a week!) I have my herbs outside right now, but I plan to move them indoors once the weather gets cool. That way I will have fresh herbs all throughout the winter too.
If you only have room for one pot, definitely grow thyme (pictured above). It looks really nice, doesn’t die if it gets a little neglected, tastes delicious fresh or dried, and can be used in a lot of different recipes. Honestly, you don’t need a green thumb at all to grow this. Just put a little bit of potting soil in the bottom of a nice pot, add your plant, sprinkle some more potting soil around the plant to fill up the pot, and water it. It took me less than 30 minutes to transplant the seven I bought today into some terra cotta pots I already had laying around. Instant garden!
Ok, back to making vinaigrette. It is seriously simple. Even easier then plunking some plants into pots. The basic formula is this: Measure 1 teaspoon vinegar into a small bowl. Whisk in salt, pepper, and any other flavorings you want (herbs, mustard, shallots, etc.). Measure 1 Tablespoon oil, and slowly drizzle it into the vinegar while whisking vigorously. Give it a quick taste, and add more salt or other flavorings if necessary. That’s it! Are you intrigued? Try out some of my favorite vinegar/oil/flavorings combinations listed below, and then make up your own!
Herb Vinaigrettes (inspired by the Foolproof Vinaigrette recipe in Cook’s Illustrated magazine)
Balsamic & Mint: 1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar + 6 chopped mint leaves + 1 Tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
Wine & Thyme: 1 teaspoon red wine vinegar + 1 sprig thyme leaves + 1/4 tsp. Dijon mustard + 1/2 teaspoon minced shallot + 1 Tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
Rice & Chive: 1 teaspoon unsweetened rice vinegar + 1/8 teaspoon ground ginger + 1 teaspoon chopped chives + 1 Tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
Serves: 1 (if you are making an entree-size salad, double everything)
Time: 5 minutes
Notes: The directions are listed in the last paragraph of the blog post. I didn’t list salt & pepper as an ingredient in each of the vinaigrette varieties, but don’t forget to add them! I used the “Balsamic + Mint” vinaigrette on the salad pictured above–it consisted of field greens, feta cheese, watermelon, and a sliced leftover grilled chicken tenderloin. The “Wine + Thyme” is really classic with French food, and the “Rice + Chive” is a good accompaniment to Asian inspired dishes. If you decide to experiment with different combinations, you can also substitute lemon or lime juice for the vinegar.