Vinaigrettes and pickles are tied closely together, from the instrumental ingredient—vinegar—to the culinary approach and techniques used. In making pickles and vinaigrettes the first and key aspect is balancing flavors. In vinaigrettes we balance the flavor in context with the vegetable, fruit or protein we will be dressing. When making pickles our flavors are guided by the product being pickled. In both instances, the end justifies the means.
Our process for making vinaigrettes and pickles begins acid—in most cases two acids. We use the flavors and characteristics of one acid to help balance and focus the flavor of another. In the case of making balsamic vinaigrette we use sherry vinegar or lemon juice to balance the sweetness of the balsamic vinegar and tighten its flavors so one can taste its subtleties. Secondly, we season the vinegar with salt, a pepper, and a splash of spring water. Without the water, the vinegar overwhelms the palate. For us it is like adding just a splash of water to single malt scotch. It prepares the palate and the product for there introduction. Next we add external seasonings: shallots, onions, vegetables, sugar, a gastrique, soy sauce, hot sauce. The use of these seasonings and flavor enhancers is dependent on how the vinaigrette or pickle will be used.
With the vinegar base well seasoned and fully flavored it can be used at this stage as a pickling solution. Unlike finished vinaigrette, which has oil to balance the acid, in pickling it is the product, which interacts directly with the solution. We often choose to add an infusion of fresh herbs or more water to the vinegar base—pickling solution—so as not to overpower what is being preserved. A dilution of the vinegar base is usually needed to truly balance our flavors. The solution is then poured over the product either hot or cold depending on what is being pickled.
We pickle to preserve and highlight ingredients which have fleeting seasons or whose extreme bounty cannot be wasted. Pickling allows us to create a product which we can use to bring balance to our cooking. The principle of pickling is about preserving, but in our cooking the pickle is a guide to our dishes adding acid, crunch, and focus to our food. For instance, while ramps—wild leeks—only grow in the early spring their bulbous flavor can be captured and used throughout the year in vinaigrettes, sauces and as its own vegetable with the forethought of pickling during the glut of the season.
Vinaigrettes are balanced and finished with the addition of fat, usually oil. In most vinaigrettes we use several fats to achieve a balanced flavor. We use a neutral fat like grape seed oil to help balance the intense flavors of the acid and spices in the vinaigrette. We use a second flavor packed oil like extra virgin olive oil or walnut oil to add a finishing flavor to the vinaigrette. If we only used one fat—either the neutral or flavored oil—our vinaigrette would not achieve equilibrium. Finally, the last minute addition of fresh herbs to vinaigrette brightens the amalgam of flavors. With this final addition vibrancy is noticed; one that would be missed if not recognized without the use of herbs. Our goal is to create a balance in the mouth which highlights what is being dressed as well as the vinaigrette itself.
The fact that we can pickle with a vinaigrette and make vinaigrette from a pickle or the pickling solution unifies these culinary contemporaries. A finished pickle and its solution have their own intense flavors further enriched by the flavors of the preserved product. Thus the pickle and its solution can then be a building block for vinaigrette. For example, we pickle morel mushrooms. We then warm these morel mushrooms up in their pickling liquid and fold in rendered foie gras fat and a splash of olive oil. While foie gras fat is not close to being neutral, its richness and the olive oils sweet and bitter undertones balance the earthiness of the morels. Our pickle then becomes warm vinaigrette. We use this vinaigrette in a number of applications from oysters on the half shell with chive blossom jelly (a direct result from our pickled ramps) to pureed vinaigrette with seared tuna.