Archive for June, 2010|Monthly archive page

Dressing Your Salad for Dinner

My local farmers’ market has made the transition from seedlings to produce. The early spring greens are still available, and now the offerings include other vegetables to toss in the salad bowl. I happily went home with red leaf and Bibb lettuces, spinach, early English cucumbers, sugar snap peas, radishes and green onions. The fresh herbs were there, too. I selected some cilantro since I don’t have it in my herb garden.

I took all of this lovely produce home and I washed, dried and chopped it into a beautiful salad. Then came the dilemma. How to dress it for dinner?

The person I share dinner with has his favorite salad dressings. He is happiest with his salad if I just stay out of his way and let him use one of the bottles from the door of the frig. As for me, I have never found a bottled dressing that suits my taste—they’re too sweet or too creamy or too vinegary. Yet my homemade dressings sometimes are just as problem-ridden.

So I’ve done some “research” on salad dressings. It seems to me that there must be a ratio of vinegar to oil to make the perfect dressing. The “rule of thumb” for basic vinaigrette which calls for 3 parts oil to 1 part vinegar may be too sour (acidic) for some people. If this is the case, you could use part citrus juice, add a little sugar, or increase the oil. When using all or part citrus juice, or when using a mild or sweet vinegar, you may need less oil to balance the flavors. Here’s a mix and match chart to get you started, but remember to adjust the ratios to suit your salad ingredients and your taste:

 Vinaigrette  

OIL VINEGAR
3 to 5 parts olive oil 1 part red wine or cider vinegar
3 parts nut oil (e.g. walnut oil) 1 part white wine or sherry vinegar
2 parts canola, corn or safflower oil 1 part flavored vinegar (e.g. Balsamic or raspberry vinegar)
2 parts peanut oil + a drizzle of sesame oil 1 part rice vinegar
1 to 2 parts olive oil 1 part citrus (lemon, lime or orange) juice

For the most basic vinaigrette, mix the vinegar/juice with salt and pepper, then slowly drizzle in the oil while whisking. To give your dressing some extra personality and zip, add in diced garlic, onion, red pepper, or herbs. Or add other spices such as cumin or ceyenne pepper. If your salad ingredients call for a sweeter dressing, add sugar, honey or maple syrup to taste.

The secret to keeping your vinaigrette from separating is to add an emulsifier. There are a couple of really convenient emulsifiers found in most kitchens: mayonnaise and mustard. It’s actually the egg yolk in the mayo and the seed coat in the mustard that bonds with the oil to keep it from repelling the water in the vinegar and juice.  For each cup of vinaigrette, add 1 teaspoon mayo or ground mustard, or 4 teaspoons Dijon-type mustard.

The final step before adding your fresh homemade vinaigrette to the salad is to taste it. Dip in a vegetable from your salad  and give it a try. Adjust the ingredients until it suits you.

Still want the convenience of bottled dressing?  A favorite resource of mine, America’s Test Kitchen, did a taste test of supermarket salad dressings.  The winner of their “bottled” vinaigrette taste test was  Good Seasons Italian All Natural Salad Dressing Mix (you add your own vinegar and oil) with a close runner-up being Kraft Seven Seas Viva Italian Dressing. In the creamy salad dressing category, their tasters found Marzetti Creamy Italian Dressing with Cracked Peppercorns to be “decent all around” and “passable in a pinch.”

 However you dress your salad, take it to dinner and enjoy!

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