Dress it up —Vinaigrettes as easy as 1,2,3
I grew up in a household with nonnegotiables, aka chores.
We had a small, functioning farm in the country that required full participation from each of us, or at least that is how my mom explained it, so chores were delegated accordingly.
On school days, I would ride the bus home to find a chore list waiting for me. I would grab a snack and set about checking off my list.
Either I didn’t know better or some of the tasks were actually fun. One weekly chore I recall enjoying was making our “house salad dressing.” The recipe was so popular it was affixed to our refrigerator for years.
Salads and vegetables, good and bad in my opinion, were a given at mealtimes so having a ready-made salad dressing was a must.
The dressing I remember was tomato based, similar to a creamy French. It was sweet and salty with a little bite and made in the blender — we did not have television growing up so using the blender without supervision was pretty entertaining for me.
The recipe produced a quart of dressing, which lasted about a week.
I recently asked my mom what was in our house dressing and, shockingly, after all these years she had to look it up. There was oil, vinegar, salt, pepper, sugar, garlic, dry mustard, onions, Worcestershire sauce and tomato soup. Many flavors of my youth don’t impress me as much as an adult, however I may need to make this soon for my family with an updated spin.
In my youth, it never occurred to me salad dressing could be purchased at the store. I don’t recall ever having any store brands in our refrigerator door and ranch dressing was foreign to me.
Sometimes, I really wonder why there is an entire aisle dedicated to salad dressing in the grocery store when I would venture to guess that most household pantries have all the ingredients needed to make dressing. And it can be done simply, quickly, inexpensively and, no doubt, healthier than any store product.
Reading the labels of most salad dressings and vinaigrettes is shocking.
Today, I can proudly claim I have not purchased salad dressing in more than 20 years, maybe 25 (but I don’t want to date myself any more than necessary).
Some might assume that is because I went to culinary school and learned the wizardly ways of balancing flavors. Not true.
Long before I attended culinary school, I unknowingly balanced acids and created blends to enhance whatever seasonal salad I was craving. But I did know I was saving money and promoting my health.
My current problem is I don’t want to make a batch of dressing and use it all week long. I like variety and creating fun salads that keep me interested. The funny thing is, the more creative I get, the more I find my kids and husband request what has become to be known as our “house salad.” It is truly the simplest to make. No whisking. No blender. No fuss.
This is our house salad, placed in one large bowl: mixed baby greens (yes, I do buy prewashed) tossed with just enough of a good olive oil to give it a slight shine (I like Olio Santo, Stone House California), drizzled with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice (bottled will not work here), coarse kosher salt, fresh cracked Tellicherry peppercorns, and fresh grated Parmesan Reggiano cheese.
Toss lightly. Taste as you go, and alter the seasoning as desired. Add what you like, but my family will eat this as is, night after night without complaint.
I should be happy with that, right?
Generally speaking, when experimenting with salad dressings or vinaigrettes in particular, start with a ratio of 3:1 oil to vinegar or other acid such as lemon juice. Salt and pepper are a must, and then experiment with fresh herbs, shallots, garlic or emulsifiers such as mustard or mayonnaise.
I love to toss all the ingredients into a mason jar, screw on the lid, shake and pour.
However, before I dive into a dressing, I think about what I am going to pair it with.
The lighter the greens the lighter the dressing. Boston, butter lettuce or other mild greens need a light, fruity even, dressing to complement their delicate flavors.
Conversely, peppery or bold greens, such as arugula, can stand up to an aged balsamic.
I also consider what other ingredients I want to garnish the salad with. I love color and texture, such as beets, dried fruit, nuts and cheese, so I always consider these before I decide what dressing to create.
Simple ingredients like jicama will be lost with a heavy, acidic dressing whereas pickled beets, hard-boiled eggs and cheese can handle a more pronounced vinaigrette.
In addition to our house salad, over the years I have found three dressings that have become such a part of my routine there is no need to affix a recipe to the refrigerator as they are ingrained in my brain.
Maybe it is time to add the dressing-making task to my children’s chore lists, however I have no doubt they will not consider the blender more entertaining than the television.