“Would you care for a salad with that?” Um…Yes, Please!!! I’ve started and re-started this article about ten times as I try to rein in my lust for a plate of cool, crisp, green stuff drizzled with something pungent and puckery producing a uniquely different flavor combination in my mouth with every bite. The one thing I’m sure to clear to the bare surface of my plate on any occasion (including a date…shameless plug for next week’s Part II of the “Must Love Food” series is a salad. This includes mopping up any remaining trace of dressing with some available bread product (last night, I had to resort to pizza crust) and possibly picking off a companion’s salad plate as well. (Sorry, Sally.)
I’m not alone in my love of salad. I challenge you to find a savory cookbook that doesn’t contain at least one. In her book, “In the Green Kitchen”, Alice Waters devotes an entire page to just *washing* greens. (For the record, soak individual leaves in water for a minute or two, circulating them with your hand. Drain in a colander. Spin in a salad spinner or spread on towels to dry.) Here in DC, the locally-owned and sourced SweetGreen (where they serve *only* salads) has expanded exponentially in the past few years. (In fact, I frequently wait in a 20 minute-plus line at their Capitol Hill location to feed my salad cravings.) The general population has finally moved beyond salad as a puny side dish and is instead embracing their (entree) salad days (couldn’t resist).
Salad greens are available almost year-round at the farmer’s market. Buying them during off-seasons when other produce choices are low (we are just at the cusp of spring produce here in the Mid-Atlantic) is a fabulous way to increase your vegetable intake and play around with salad making- particularly, mastering salad dressings. It really bugs me when people spend money to buy store-produced dressings. (Meaning not that you should steal them but that you shouldn’t use them at all.) Not only are they a waste of money, but they always contain a bunch of chemical ingredients and stabilizers. (Even the organic ones have things such as “xanthan gum” in them. Incidentally, if you look up “xanthan gum” on Google, you will then have to Google about 7 other words to get even the slightest inkling of its true origin and makeup. No, thank you.) Once you master greens and dressing, you can start to play around with other toppings and ingredients as they come into season.
Salad dressings are all about ratio. You may want to purchase a cruet (fancy, fancy word for “salad dressing bottle”) that has graduated markers like mine that make it easy to remember the proportions of ingredients. But, you really don’t need it. I often make single serving (sigh…single…) portions of dressings in small storage containers with lids, simply tasting as I go. Basically, all dressings need to contain: (a) a fat (b) a vinegar (this includes things like lemon or lime juice) and (c) salt/pepper/seasonings. You may also want an emulsifier (something that makes the dressing creamier and helps the vinegar/oil be friends). This is often something such as Dijon mustard or buttermilk. Here is a good starter ratio: 3 parts oil 1 part vinegar assorted seasonings (to add both flavor and texture) of your choice emulsifier (optional) – start with about 1/4 the amount of vinegar added and add as taste/smoothness demands BUT, remember!- this is to your taste! So, if you like tangier dressings- go for 2 parts oil/1 part vinegar. I like closer to 1-to-1 myself. Taste the dressing as you slowly add seasonings to make sure it tastes best to you. Some possibilities: OILS: Canola, Olive, Corn, Vegetable, Peanut, Bacon grease (don’t knock it ‘til you try it) VINEGARS: Cider, Red Wine, White Wine, Balsamic, Mirin/Rice Wine (Asian), Sherry, Ume Plum, Juice of lemons, limes or oranges. SEASONINGS: Minced Shallots, Garlic, Onions (all chopped fine); Capers; Herbs-fresh work best (Cilantro, Chives, Basil, Parsley, thyme, oregano etc.); sesame or truffle oil (too strong to use as an oil base, use them instead to lend flavor); spices (hot pepper, salt, pepper, paprika, etc.); citrus zest. EMULSIFIERS: Mustards (Dijon, Honey Mustard, Horseradish mustard); Honey (for sweetness); Buttermilk; Mayonnaise; soft cheese-like blue or goat; plain yogurt; light sour cream (for creaminess). Don’t be afraid to explore. The beauty of salad dressings is that they are easy to correct. Store in your refrigerator for up to a week or so and shake before using again. Here are three salads I made this week. (OK, fine, I made them all on the same day. Did I mention I LOVE salad??):