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From the Dark Side of the Fridge: Salad Basics I

How to cook, cooking for beginners, cooking without recipes

It’s summer. It’s hot. Salads are a great way to get dinner on the table without cooking and a minimum of fuss. Plus they’re generally pretty healthy. So let’s get some salad basics going, and yes, we are starting with the dressing first.

“What?” you ask plaintively. “Why not just pour the dressing out of a bottle? And that goes on last, anyway.”

Remember our mantra? Don’t make any more mess than you have to. You make the salad dressing first right in the bowl you’ll eventually mix the salad in. As to why make it, there’s no point in not making your own. Bottled dressing is not cheap and have you ever looked at the ingredients label on one of those? Holy preservatives, Batman! Not to mention tons of sodium, and a lot of bottled dressings these days contain things like dextrose and high fructose corn syrup. You know what those are? Sugar, and sugar is getting to be the new bad guy in the food world, and those hidden sugars in heavily processed foods are probably why. (Which is why I’m a big advocate of reading labels, even on basics like mustard and ketchup).

Making your own dressing means you can control how much goes in your salad – you don’t need nearly as much as you think. A couple tablespoons will dress enough salad for four. Your own dressing just tastes better, too. And it’s a snap to make. Finally, when you’re just learning how to cook without recipes, salad dressings are easy to play around with. If you make a horrible mistake, just rinse out the bowl and try again. You’ve only set dinner back maybe five minutes, at most. And you will make mistakes. They’re no big deal. Just try again.

We have a new mantra to mutter repetitively: You can always add more, you can’t add less. In other words, use less seasoning/oil/whatever than you think you’ll need. You can always add more if it doesn’t taste right, but you can’t take out too much salt very easily. Or cumin or parsley or whatever you used too much of.

The basic salad dressing formula is three parts fat to one part acid, plus flavorings. In other words, for every three teaspoons or tablespoons or quarter cups of fats, you add one teaspoon, tablespoon or quarter cup of acid. Fats are your basic oils (olive, canola, corn) or mayonnaise (Trader Joe’s has a good one without fancy chemicals or sweeteners) or even cream. Acid is the tart or sour element, most commonly a vinegar of some sort, but lemon or lime juice works very well, too, and buttermilk and sour cream also count. A note about vinegars – do not, repeat, do not use white distilled vinegar in anything you’re going to eat or drink. It’s great for cleaning floors or your microwave, but its taste is truly horrible. Cider vinegar is also one of those things to watch out for. Make sure it’s actually made from cider, as opposed to the white stuff with flavorings and color added. Blech!

Flavorings are things like dried herbs, mustard, ketchup, spices. Anything you think will go with the fat and acid you’ve chosen. A word here about dried herbs. If you can get a hold of a pre-blended mix that has only herbs in it and no added salt or other stuff, buy it. Buy it in bulk if you have to. We have herbes de Provence here, and I toss it in tons of stuff. But Italian herbs would be good (not Italian seasoning packets because of the chemicals). Also, it’s easy for me to say things like add your favorite herbs or whatever. But I also know you don’t necessarily have a favorite herb or herb blend. You probably didn’t even know there were such things as herbes de Provence. Here’s how you find out what you, and by extension your family, do and don’t like. You buy some herbs and/or spices and try them individually. You can do this with a basic mayonnaise and lime juice dressing because those ingredients won’t cover up the flavor of whatever you’re experimenting with. Just don’t buy those expensive jars on the spice aisle at your local supermarket unless you have to. Check around. Around here, most supers have a section next to the produce department with small packages of dried herbs and spices for, like, a fifth of what the jars cost. And if you’re not sure you’re going to like something, you don’t want to spend $6 on something that will clutter up your kitchen for years to come.

So here are some basic dressings with a couple variations:

Classic oil and vinegar, the oil just coats the bottom of the bowl.
Classic oil and vinegar, the oil just coats the bottom of the bowl.

The classic oil and vinegar. This is where you want to use the expensive extra virgin olive oil (and you can get some that are still very good and won’t require adding onto the mortgage to buy). I also like red wine vinegar in this application. Add salt and pepper and taste after mixing with a fork or whisk. You can always add more oil.

salad2Add some dried herbs – experiment with marjoram or basil or thyme. Or find some herbes de Provence, my fave.

salad3Add some mustard to the classic which has the added advantage of keeping your oil and vinegar from separating while you wash the lettuce.

salad4French (which is sometimes called Russian) dressing is simply ketchup and mayonnaise.

That little yellow blob is actually pickle relish. Someone accidentally brought the stuff with the mustard in it.

Thousand Island is French dressing with pickle relish added – a basic for a taco salad.

salad6Ranch dressing – puh-leeze. You do not need those little seasoning packets. Salt, pepper, a few dried herbs (oregano, basil, thyme) and mayonnaise. Stir in enough buttermilk bit by bit until it’s as thick or runny as you like.

One final note – learn to taste as you go. It’s no big deal to dip your finger (or if you’re cooking for guests, a spoon) into your dressing or whatever and taste it. It will save a lot of nasty surprises at the dinner table. It’s also how you learn what works and what doesn’t. So taste and enjoy your own salad dressing.

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