Salad couture

The News & Observer’s Andrea Weigl wrote here about her salad-a-day plan to help lose the baby weight. To make a salad a meal, you have to keep things interesting, and Weigl asked for reader suggestions on how to do that.

She overlooked the single spot where good salads can go bad in both diet and flavor: The dressing.

I got on a salad kick a year or so ago. I just started wanting salads for lunch instead of sandwiches. Whatever kind of odd craving this is has continued, and I’ve drawn The Hub into the leafy green vortex. I quickly became disgusted with nearly all bottled salad dressings. Not only are they underground monsters of salt, fat and sugar, but most of them just don’t taste good – especially once you start making your own. Today, I can whip up dressing for two almost as quickly as I could grab a bottle from the refrigerator and shake it until its gelatinous goo manages to become liquid.

The first thing I did was purchase one of those powdered dressing mix-with-bottle sets at the supermarket. I threw out the mixes and had a lovely bottle with a tight-fitting lid, perfect for shaking. You can use any glass jar with a screw top, but this looks nice on the table and pours easily.

Then, I mastered the basic vinaigrette. For math fans, it’s a simple ratio: 3 parts oil to 1 part acid. Add salt and pepper to your liking, shake well. Some emulsion fans (that’s what a vinaigrette is) insist on using a food processor to make it all come together, but that’s too much trouble for a Tuesday lunch. Unless there’s a lot of chunky ingredients, shaking should do just fine.

The oil can be such things as olive oil, vegetable oil, avocado oil or walnut oil. Acids could be wine or balsamic vinegars, lemon juice, lime juice, or a combination thereof. You don’t have to spend a lot on fancy oils and vinegars – your fresh dressing will taste better than the bottle no matter if the ingredients are pricey or not. But you could splurge, if you like, on some good balsamic vinegar or an unusual oil.

Which brings me to the add-ins. You can toss in a crushed garlic clove, dab of Dijon mustard, chopped fresh basil or tarragon, dried herb blends, drained capers, sesame oil, grated fresh ginger, tahini paste, mashed ripe avocado – you name it, pretty much. If you have a reasonably well-stocked pantry and spice shelf, you can come up with a different dressing for every weekday lunch. Homemade dressing will keep in the refrigerator, but I prefer to make just what I need and use it fresh. Let it sit for a few minutes if you’re adding flavors – while you’re compiling your salad is a good length of time.

If you want a fancier dressing, this recipe from “Tupelo Honey Cafe: Spirited Recipes from Asheville’s New South Kitchen” by Elizabeth Sims with Chef Brian Sonoskus (Andrews McMeel, 2011) is lively and different. You will need the food processor for this one. It’s easy to divide in half if you don’t need so much dressing.

1/4 cup pecans

1/4 cup cider vinegar

1 clove garlic, minced

2 1/2 teaspoons Dijon musterd

2 1/2 teaspoons whole-grain mustard

1 tablespoon plus 1 1/2 teaspoons tupelo honey

2 teaspoons sugar

1 teaspoon sea salt

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 cup canola oil

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Roast the pecans on a rimmed sheet pan in a 350-degree oven for about 20 minutes, or until the pecans are roasted or slightly browned. Remove, cool and grind in a food processor until the mixture resembles coarse cornmeal. Transfer the pecans to a small bowl. Puree the vinegar, garlic, Dijon mustard, whole-grain mustard, honey, sugar, salt and pepper in a food processor and while the machine is running, drizzle in the canola oil and olive oil. Remove and pour into a container. Stir in the ground pecans and serve. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 30 days. Makes 2 cups.

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2 Responses to “Salad couture”

  • Comment from Kathleen Purvis

    One bit of salad dressing/vinaigrette science that I find useful: Did you know that a lot of the common dressing add-ins — Dijon in particular, but a lot of other things that have fine particles — actually aid in emulsifying? To get all sciencey about it, they coat the tiny droplets of whisked vinegar and oil and keep them linked together, so they don’t jump apart again. Dijon works particularly well because it has a little lecithin. Better living through additives.

  • Comment from Debbie Moose

    I’ve always lived better the more additives I consume. Thanks, Kathi, that’s true about Dijon. It helps the emulsification.

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