Saturday, April 5, 2008

April 5: Three Salad Dressings From Scratch

At the age of 32, I have finally reached a level of maturity where I am willing to eat salad not just for the dressing but for the vegetables. There is a real joy in a big, simple bowl of chopped romaine, sliced mushrooms, radishes, onion, cucumber, chopped tomatoes, and shredded carrots, tossed together with some really great salad dressing.

Great salad dressing makes me want to lick the bowl after the salad is gone. Salad is the frame and the canvas, but salad dressing is the paint for me. It ties the whole thing together.

When it comes to salad dressing, the only thing I really can't stand is Thousand Island dressing. No, seriously: put it on a burger or a corned beef sandwich with swiss cheese and sauerkraut, but not a salad. I just can't do it.

So really it's anything but Thousand Island, but I have definite favorites. I particularly love that 800-calorie trainwreck of an iceburg lettuce wedge smothered in bleu cheese dresssing, diced tomato, crumbled bacon, and bleu cheese. Nomnomnomnomnom. By nutritional standards, it's barely a salad at all, more like a guilty pleasure.

Nora Ephron, in her semi-autobiographical novel Heartburn, describes a vinaigrette dressing that has been the backbone of my salad-dressing-making for years. I've made it with nothing but the three ingredients described in the recipe, and it's like a haiku drizzled over greens; I've added shallots and roasted garlic and black pepper and all manner of other things to it. It's practically impossible to ruin; it's never failed to make me want to guzzle it straight from the bowl of the blender.

At the other end of the spectrum from Nora Ephron's vinaigrette is a creamy garlic dressing that I am just addicted to. It's great on very strong, assertive greens, like escarole and frisee, because I love a good, big garlic flavor, especially if dinner is something garlicky. In for a penny, in for a pound, I always say.

Bleu Cheese Dressing

This dressing needs good, sturdy lettuce or it'll get soggy. This is America's Test Kitchen's recipe, sort of, but I like the bleu cheese a little fancier and a little chunkier than they suggest. Go buy yourself a wedge of really great, decadent, stinky cheese for this dressing, like an imported gorgonzola or bleu d'auvergne. Go on, you're worth it.

2 1/2 ounces bleu cheese, crumbled (about 1/2 cup)
3 tablespoons buttermilk
3 tablespoons sour cream
2 tablespoons mayonnaise
2 teaspoons white wine vinegar
1/8 teaspoon granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
Table salt and ground black pepper

Mix cheese and buttermilk in a small bowl until combined. Stir in remaining ingredients. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper. Can be covered and refrigerated up to 14 days.

Nora Ephron's Vinaigrette

"This makes a very strong vinaigrette that's perfect for salad greens like arugula and watercress and endive," writes Ephron in "Heartburn" (Alfred A. Knopf, 1983).

2 tablespoons Grey Poupon mustard
2 tablespoons good red wine vinegar
6 tablespoons olive oil

Mix the mustard with the vinegar, whisking with a fork. Then, whisking constantly, slowly add the olive oil, until the vinaigrette is thick and creamy. Makes about 1/2 cup.

Creamy Garlic Dressing

This is sort of my own invention. It's strong, but it's rich and assertive and it's my favorite on bitter field greens.

2/3 cup mayonnaise
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons lemon juice from 1 lemon
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
6 cloves garlic, peeled and pressed through a garlic press or minced to a paste
1/8 teaspoon sugar
1/8 cup grated parmesan cheese
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Combine all ingredients in a blender bowl and blend on high speed until well blended. Taste and correct seasoning with salt and pepper to taste.

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