Kitchen Wisdom: Home Made Salad Dressing
Bottled dressing is not an option in my kitchen. I serve a green salad for dinner every night, tossed in a wooden salad bowl with light vinaigrette. My recipe follows the classic proportions I learned from my mother: 3 parts oil to 1 part vinegar. But after that, the recipe gets loose, depending on the type of lettuce and the piquancy of the greens: If the leaves are soft and buttery, I’ll substitute lemon for the vinegar. A tough romaine warrants bold balsamic vinegar and a teaspoon of Dijon. Spicy blends of salad greens are sweetened with a tablespoon of maple syrup.
My mother taught me how to make a basic vinaigrette. But perhaps it was easier back in the sixties, when the choice of either iceberg or Boston butterhead lettuce narrowed the options for dressing. Growing my own allows me to play with a variety of dressing, to match the unique flavor of each green. Preparing salad greens, is like conditioning flowers. If you can keep the stems and leaves full of moisture, then quickly cooled, they will stay crisp and hardy. Even better, whisk the dressing in the bowl, then dash to the garden to harvest the tender fresh leaves with only minutes between garden and salad bowl.
My grandmother made her own vinaigrette, too. She was of a generation that did not enjoy a strong blast of garlic. Rather than adding garlic directly to the dressing, she would make a paste by crushing a garlic clove into a small bit of cream or milk to extract its essence. She would then strain this concoction and add it to her vinaigrette. She was also a stickler for extra virgin olive oil long before it became popular. It was the health properties she was after; the cold pressing of the olives offered benefits beyond mere flavor.
One summer, my grandmother taught me another dressing, made with a light, fruity green-olive oil and lemon juice, mixed in the same 3-to-1 proportions, then blended with a spoonful each of honey and tahini. The greens were ordinary Bibb lettuce, yet the salad sang of summer, with a tart balance of sweet and sour. My grandmother lived well into her nineties, and I like to think it was because she ate so well.
It’s my turn now, to teach how to make a home made dressing. Earlier in the day, I had immersed the fresh greens in a basin of cool water, spun them dry, and then wrapped the leaves in absorbent towels before placing them in the refrigerator. I watch as my daughter Molly whisks together the oil and vinegar; I suggest a dash of Dijon mustard and a scant teaspoon of maple syrup. “Now taste it,” I tell her. She squints, she gently smacks her lips, and for a moment her eyes get that faraway look that says, “Don’t disturb me, I’m thinking.” Teaching my daughter how to make salad dressing is like teaching someone creative writing. I am sharing my understanding of the basics, but ultimately she needs to decide how to express her own taste. I like to think that families who make homemade dressings will always make homemade dressings, and that our recipes will be handed down through the generations, keeping bottled dressing at bay.
Maple Balsamic Vinaigrette: Makes 1/2 cup
Here is a robust dressing that is both sweet and savory, yet allows the flavors of greens to shine through—it will quickly become a favorite for all your mesclun salads. True balsamic vinegar has an intense flavor, and is only available in specialty food stores. If possible, sample a variety of balsamic vinegars until you find one that you like.
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 large clove garlic, finely chopped
1 tablespoons pure maple syrup
1 tablespoon lemon juice
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh basil
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
Coarse sea salt and fresh ground pepper, to taste
In a small bowl or a blender, combine the mustard, garlic, maple syrup, lemon juice, vinegar, and basil. Slowly whisk in the olive oil to emulsify. Season to taste with salt and pepper.