My best friend growing up was of Italian descent. My culinary map as a child was pretty much meat and potatoes – always delicious, but not exotic or ethnic, as we are so accustomed to these days. Eating at Mrs. D’s house was different. Spaghetti sauce was “gravy” and you never cut your spaghetti with a knife and fork, but twirled it with fork and spoon. Parmesan cheese was not Kraft, but freshly grated. Salad was a few peppery greens with vinegar and olive oil. Holidays were resplendent with different types of fish and baked goods; never good for the waistline, but oh so good for the soul.
The simplest dish she made, however, one that has haunted me for over forty years, is a simple red-wine vinaigrette. In the traditional Italian fashion, salad was served as a palate cleanser, after the entrée. This was another deviation from my upbringing in which the salad was the first course, and usually consisted of Iceberg lettuce. Mrs. D served her salad in a small cream-colored bowl (tiny in terms of today’s portions) filled with peppery greens, (who know from Iceberg?) and wedges of juicy, ripe, red tomato. I waited with bated breath at each meal, hoping someone, and there were six at the table, would say “No thanks.” It never happened. We were all served a tomato wedge and a few leaves to complement the meal. The greens were delicate, yet bitter, and peppery. The oil came in a can, not a bottle like my Mom’s vegetable oil, and she never measured, just poured lightly over the greens. The vinegar was red-wine vinegar, again of unknown origin and never measured, accompanied by a generous dash of salt and a few grinds of black pepper.
To this day, I am amazed, puzzled, and frustrated that I have never been able to duplicate this simple, but delicious, and obviously memorable, recipe. Occasionally I’ve ordered a salad similarly dressed at a restaurant and will exclaim to my family, “This tastes just like Mrs. D’s!” At those times I am once again sitting at her table. Thanks Mrs. D for the all the good times and great meals!
The closest I have come to replicating her vinaigrette is a ratio of 4 parts extra-virgin olive oil to 2 parts red-wine vinegar with a a pinch of kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste. For a small salad that would be 1/4 cup oil (4 tablespoons) to 2 tablespoons vinegar.