The art of dressing
Nora Ephron, Heartburn, and how to make the perfect vinaigrette.
I was 13 when I went on my first French exchange. The parents of my host family were teachers, they had a daughter and a son, and a communist party sticker in the car window. The house was an ordinary square house on the edge of a small town, rendered in a pinkish cream, with a red tiled roof and a large mimosa tree in the garden.
Some evenings, I was trusted with making the vinaigrette for the salad. I had no idea how to do this, coming from a house where cooking wasn’t central to our lives, and where salad meant a few leaves of soft lettuce, a couple of wedges of tomato, possibly a slice or two of cucumber, Salad Cream its only embellishment. But even then I was a quick study and watched what the others did, copied them, preferring that to the embarrassment of admitting I didn’t know how. What? This old vinaigrette? I make it all the time…
I stirred a tablespoon of Dijon mustard into a glass tumbler with two tablespoons of red wine vinegar, then slowly whisked in six tablespoons of olive oil with a fork until, like a miracle, it was thick, smooth, emulsified. Every meal, this was gently slicked onto salad leaves. Sometimes, it was used to dress what quickly became my favourite salad: tomatoes, green beans and slices of hearts of palm. To this day, I still have a huge affection for tinned hearts of palm.
Being able to make a good vinaigrette is an essential life skill, like being able to sew on a button or give a cat a tablet.
Almost every year, I reread Nora Ephron’s Heartburn, the smoothly clever, moving and funny novella drawn from the breakdown of her marriage to Carl Bernstein, who with Bob Woodward, broke the Watergate scandal. I was about to say “thinly disguised”, but then I remembered her introduction to a later edition:
“It’s been nearly twenty-five years since my second marriage ended, and twenty-two since I finished writing the book you’re about to read, which is often referred to as a thinly disguised novel. I have no real quarrel with this description, even though I’ve noticed, over the years, that the words “thinly disguised” are applied mostly to books written by women. Let’s face it, Philip Roth and John Updike picked away at the carcasses of their early marriages in book after book, but to the best of my knowledge they were never hit with the thinly disguised thing.”
Anyway, as well as Heartburn being probably my most given-away book – at one point I used to buy two or three copies at a time and pass them on to anyone who needed cheering up – in it, Ephron demonstrates the importance of a great vinaigrette. Thinly-disguised her, Nora-Rachel, cannot believe her straying husband, Carl-Mark, could possibly leave her because of the perfection of her salad dressing.
“I had gotten to the point where I simply could not make a bad vinaigrette, this was not exactly the stuff of drama. (Even now, I cannot believe Mark would want to risk losing that vinaigrette. You just don't bump into vinaigrettes that good.)”
Her vinaigrette is similar to my first French vinaigrette, but she uses more mustard. You can adapt it as you like. Add some garlic, minced to a paste with a little salt, not too much as the mustard is already salty, or a finely chopped shallot or anchovy, or whisk in an egg yolk for an extra-creamy dressing, and of course you can add all manner of soft herbs. But essentially, little can better the glorious triumvirate of mustard, vinegar and oil, a simple, everyday delight.
Nora Ephron’s vinaigrette
What I love about Heartburn is the way Ephron weaves food into life. Like so many of you, I suspect, I associate so many key moments in my life with what I was eating or making at the time, the heartbreak pasta or the job offer omelette, the big birthday suckling pig and the new friend cheesecake.
Market Haul 30 January 2023
This week’s market haul includes: endive, oranges, a Sicilian lemon, two lemon tarts, a red pepper, Seville oranges for marmalade, a baguette, two sticks of celery and some parsley, sand carrots from Brittany and some wonderful spinach.
I love Heartburn so, so much. I must have read it a dozen times since acquiring a copy in my mid-20s. It became more relevant and even more comforting after my marriage broke down. I adore all Nora’s writing and certainly share her belief that everything is copy; one of my friends liked my daily Facebook reports from a hospital stay so much, she suggested I write a sitcom based on it (a more modern, female, Only When I Laugh?!). I bow down to your vinaigrette’s mustard ratio over Nora’s though. I’ve only had hearts of palm once, in a salad at Angelina’s, the esteemed Parisian tearoom but rather liked them. Not as much as the hot chocolate and Mont Blanc which followed...
I love a good vinaigrette... I make mine with olive oil and rapeseed oil and always add a bit of water to emulsify it as they seem to do in our local restaurant in France.