Archive for the ‘family meals’ Category

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:


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!


Saucing up your grains

We had a great turn-out for the cooking session of Vegetarianism 101. I gave the participants the chance to test their knowledge of some unusual grains. Can you tell the difference between millet and quinoa, or kasha and bulgur?

One of the participants suggested spending an evening or weekend day making several sauces then freezing them for easy family meals. She said this is a great way of assuring great taste and variety for quick weeknight dinners. Simply add the sauce to the grain or legume and voilá–dinner!

This got me to thinking–what sauces would be good to make for the freezer? Aside from a traditional tomato sauce or pestoRomesco sauce would be delicious. Deborah Madison has an entire section on sauces in her classic book, Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. She suggests serving sesame sauce over grains or grilled vegies, peanut sauce with tofu and curry sauce with rice or as a base for curried vegetable soup.

Here’s a great marinara sauce recipe to get you started:

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 medium onions, chopped fine
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons dried oregano
  • 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 1/4 cup tomato paste
  • 1 cup dry red wine
  • 4-28 oz cans crushed tomatoes
  • 1 cup water
  • 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese
  • 1/4 cup fresh basil leaves, chiffonade
  • salt and sugar to taste

Heat oil in large saucepan or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add onions and cook unti golden brown, about 10 minutes. Stir in garlic, oregano and pepper flakes and cook for 30 seconds. Add tomato paste and wine; cook until slightly thickened, about 2 minutes. Stir in tomatoes and water; simmer over low heat until the sauce is thickened, about 45 minutes to 1 hour. Stir in cheese and basil. Taste, then season with salt and sugar as needed.

How easy is that? You may want to give these recipes a trial run then double or triple them to store in your freezer. Once your sauce has cooled, ladle it into plastic freezer bags or containers in 1- or 2-cup portions, label with recipe name and date, then lay the bags flat on a sheet tray to freeze. Once they’re frozen solid, you can remove them from the tray and stack them to save on freezer space.

When you come home hungry, you’ll be glad your dinner is nearly done.

Debriefing Over Dinner

How would you answer this question? “During the past seven days, how many times did all, or most, of your family eat a meal together?”

That’s one of the questions asked of young people in a study recently reported in The Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior. The authors concluded that, among other factors, family meal frequency was associated with higher calcium intake.

Aside from improved nutrition, there is a laundry list of benefits that go along with regularly sharing food as a family. They range from the not so surprising—stronger family relationships—to the impressive—better grades in school and decreased risk of using marijuana, cigarettes and alcohol.

When I was growing up, my family had dinner together every evening. My mother would call from work and remind us, my sister and me, to get dinner started. My sister, older than me by only 13 months, always took the call and then would dole out the duties. I may have grumbled about it at the time, but I was happy to have dinner when my parents got home. We didn’t know any differently. Restaurants were scarce, money was tight and everyone we knew ate at home, too.

Nowadays, things are different. Time is tight, restaurants are enticing and many families either eat out or skip out on putting dinner on the table.  

If you are interested in finding out how to get dinners started, want to have family meals more often, or want to know how to solve troubles at the table, sign up for the 3 session program, Food for Families. It’s a noon-time program that begins next week on Wednesday February 3, then continues for the next 2 Wednesdays. This program is open to Michigan State University benefits-eligible faculty, staff and retirees and their spouses or partners. Pre-enrollement is required. Participants receive a copy of Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family, the text for the program.


  • Larson NI, Neumark-Sztainer D, Harnack L, Wall M, Story M, Eisenberg ME. Calcium and dairy intake: Longitudinal trends during the transition to young adulthood and correlates of calcium intake. J Nutr Educ Behav. 2009;41:254-260.
  • National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA). The Importance of Family Dinners IV. 2007.