To my mother’s credit, there was always a fresh vegetable on our dinner table when I was growing up. Her vegetables were always perfectly cooked—and always perfectly plain. At the beginning of summer, when locally grown bright-green sugar snap peas, firm little zucchini, and tender red new potatoes start to show up in the markets, I actually appreciate my mom’s simple approach to vegetables. I cook these first vegetables of the season unadorned to savor their fresh, pure flavor. But as summer continues, I get bored with plain.
When this happens, I turn to vinaigrettes. Though usually associated with green salads, vinaigrettes are wonderful paired with steamed or sautéed summer vegetables. In a cold salad, the vegetables and vinaigrette remain separate, but cooked vegetables absorb a vinaigrette, which punches up their flavor. The flavors of the vinaigrette, in turn, are intensified when warmed.
A lemon vinaigrette, for example, brightens steamed green beans, while a minty vinaigrette freshens up cucumbers and snap peas. A creamy basil vinaigrette makes potatoes taste summery, while a vinaigrette made with balsamic vinegar deepens the flavor of a quickly cooked ratatouille.
Flavored vinaigrettes pack a punch
In its simplest form, a vinaigrette is a combination of oil and vinegar (or other acid), usually at a 3:1 ratio. In the classic preparation, the oil is slowly whisked into the acid to form a temporary emulsion. In some dishes, where it’s important for the emulsion to last longer, an emulsifier—an herb, a spice, or mustard— is added to the vinaigrette. Aside from creating a more stable emulsion, these additions also add flavor.
Mixing and matching flavors is part of the fun of making vinaigrette. Tweaking this classic combination— choosing from among a variety of oils and vinegars and adding garlic, shallots, herbs, spices, mustard, or mayonnaise—means you can make the flavor of the vinaigrette as straightforward or as complex as you like.
When I think about making a vinaigrette for my summer vegetables, I put the flavor of the vegetable first. The acid, whether vinegar or citrus juice, should be strong enough to bring out the vegetable’s flavor without overwhelming it. A light vinegar, such as rice or white wine, will jazz up delicate cucumbers, fresh peas, or summer squash without overpowering them. More robust eggplant, tomatoes, and portabella mushrooms can stand up to a red-wine or balsamic vinegar.
The same concerns apply to oil. The strong, distinct flavor of extra-virgin olive oil is best suited to heartier vegetables and vinegars. Use the same matching principles with additional seasonings, such as mustard, garlic, and herbs. Team stronger flavors with hearty vegetables, and save delicate flavorings for milder produce.
Use fresh herbs for summertime vinaigrettes. While dried herbs have their place in cooking, it isn’t with summer vegetables. If you can’t find an herb that’s suggested in one of these recipes, don’t reach for the dried version of it. Instead, substitute a different fresh herb, tarragon in place of mint in the sugar snap pea vinaigrette, for example, or parsley in place of basil in the potato recipe. The flavor will be different, but it will still be fresh and delicious.
Some vinaigrettes are made right in the skillet or saucepan
Most vinaigrettes are made by combining all the ingredients except the oil and then whisking in the oil in a slow, steady stream. You can also combine all the ingredients in a lidded bowl or jar and shake to combine, or mix it all in a food processor, adding the oil in a stream at the end. Two of the recipes here follow those basic directions. In the other two, I’ve separated the oil and vinegar components of the dressing. The vegetables are cooked in the oil and are then tossed with the vinegar off the heat. With this method, the flavors of the vinaigrette are even more fully incorporated into the cooked dish.