I get it. Clearly my lifestyle has its drawbacks. I forget birthdays. I leave stuff at the dry cleaners for eons, I fall up flights of stairs, I can barely find my pants in the morning, and I’m sure you can tell from my insouciant tone that I’m not about to win any awards for Employee of the Month.
It’s not that I am careless or lazy or disengaged or sloppy or clumsy. It’s more a matter of being painfully and, at times criminally, abstract. I sometimes feel like that which tethers me to the day-to-day is tenuous at best, and that I live in a shadow-world of long plans, vague inferences, and fuzzy grey edges that don’t linger under the bright light. (Want to make me painfully uncomfortable? Force me to make a quick decision or deliver a succinct explanation). I’ll never be quite at ease where I have to answer “yes” or “no” or be entirely comfortable under circumstances where matching socks are necessary.
It translates to food. It’s not that I “trust my instincts” more than any other person, it’s that I tend to gravitate towards a style of cooking that doesn’t penalize me for doing so. I braise. I make soup. I’m generous with butter and garlic and make stuff from scratch. In other words, I maximize my margin of error.
But sometimes my focus on the big picture interferes with dinner. More specifically, replicating something precisely. Simply leave me to my instincts and tastes that require delicacy and balance just don’t happen.
About a year and a half ago, I improvised a salad dressing. It was a Sunday evening, and the plate of baby greens were an afterthought to the primal comfort of chicken and potatoes and iced tea. Maybe I was out of honey or maybe I seasoned the bird with ginger or maybe the TV was on and Bear Grylls was prancing around the Mekong Delta, or maybe I was just feeling sassy. Nonetheless, I threw together a somewhat “Asian” salad dressing that was completely an accident and yet is still reverberating around my taste buds all of these months later.
And I’ve never been able to re-create it. Until, I think, this past weekend.
I am absolutely 100% certain that the dressing contained exactly five ingredients: Peanut oil, Sesame Oil, Rice Wine Vinegar, Soy Sauce, and orange juice. I didn’t try to be slick and use orange oil or mirin, I didn’t add salt or honey or anything else. I tried to basically toe the standard vinaigrette line.
I am also REASONABLY certain that I would have diluted the sesame oil with peanut oil. The former has only recently been a welcome, permanent guest in my pantry, but I still find it a bit heavy-going and committal.
So I gave it a try. I coarsely chopped up some napa cabbage to function as tasting spoons and set about recreating my dressing. Please bear with me as I take you through the detail:
My first attempt consisted of a little less than 1T of sesame oil, a little peanut oil to round it out, 1t vinegar, drop each of soy and oj. While the acidity was about right, this didn’t taste good at all. The peanut oil hid the other ingredients and it just tasted chalky. So I figured the first step was to figure out the balance of sesame to peanut.
Again, I knew I had the acidity correct, so I played around with the two oils, and, fortunately, it only took two more attempts before I settled on the easy-to-remember balance of half each peanut/seseme.
This is where things got a little tricky. I had the right acidity and the faint background flavor of peanut, but this dressing still had little… anima. Soy is supposed to add unctuousness and mystery and orange brings sweetness and vigor. But I couldn’t really taste either.
So I started basically upping them, drop by drop. The problem is I am NOT the Cooks Illustrated Test Kitchen. I am not going to start a completely new batch of dressing every time I wish to start anew. But each time I sampled my work before adding another eyedropper full of stuff, I change the overall ratio. So, eventually, when I found something I thought I liked, I decided to re-create that same back once more to confirm it. This took a few minutes.
Fortunately, I did get there. And once I did, I thought it would simply be easier to extract this to a larger batch, so that the quantities of soy and orange are more manageable. This is what I wound up with
1 1/2 T peanut oil
1 1/2 T sesame oil
1 T rice wine vinegar
3/4 t oj
2/3 t soy sauce (just eyeball it)
Obviously, your mileage is going to vary. You might like more orange and less soy and might want to add ginger or whatever. But let me suggest that this represents a template for replicating the method rather than a pronouncement as to the “correct” way to create this dressing. In fact, a better way to state this might be:
1. find the balance of oil to acid that you like
2. figure out how much, if at all, you want to dilute the peanut oil
3. play around with the supporting cast until it tastes the way you think it should.
So then you mix it up, garnish your salad, or, of course, a fancy Asian slaw as part of an elaborate meal you can’t wait to tell everyone about.