I have spent over 30 years arguing about the proper ratio of oil to vinegar, the choice of emulsifier and even whether salad dressings need to be emulsified at all. Yet, in France one notices the dressing is better and quite different than the standard formula. Perhaps it is the oil itself. Or the type of vinegar. Or just oil or vinegar, but not both.
Step out of Europe, however, and dressing choices multiply. In many cultures, sauces—not just vinegar and oil—dress vegetables, grains and greens. The range of acids and fats expands, as does the potential for sweeteners and wild cards such as tamarind paste, miso or a bold splash of fish, soy or oyster sauce. By contrast, French vinaigrette appears shopworn and unimaginative.
I was introduced to one of the simplest, most appealing dressings by Yasmin Khan, author of “The Saffron Tales.” The Iranian dressing sekanjabin is an ancient blend of cider vinegar, honey or sugar and mint concentrated into a syrup to use straight as a dressing or diluted in a drink. It is related to French gastrique and the Italian agrodolce, which marry caramelized sugar with vinegar and other flavors.
We began with a half-cup each of cider vinegar and honey, salt and a bunch of mint, stems and all. Every ingredient but the mint simmered, then the herbs steeped in the syrup as it came to room temperature. Early versions were too sweet, so we increased the vinegar by a couple tablespoons in a final flourish.
We liked the sweet-and-sour dressing on cooled roasted vegetables. It played well against bitter broccoli rabe and spicier notes such as curry powder and chili-garlic sauce, which can be found in the international aisle. Though its consistency is thinner, Sriracha works as a substitute.