Salad, at its most fundamental level, is that unassuming concoction of produce, tossed together with a dressing, whose prominence is so frequently overshadowed by its richer, fattier or more sugary meal time companions. Even the venerable William Shakespeare’s Cleopatra lamented, “My salad days, when I was green in judgment,” and thereby coined the term to refer to the youthful and inexperienced period in one’s life, filled with idealism, innocence, enthusiasm and indiscretion. The word salad’s origins lie in the Latin word salata, meaning “salty,” and has been used in English since the 14th century.
My mother is Argentine, born in Buenos Aires, where the three food groups are meat, wine…and salad. I grew up eating salad every day of my life. Not the nasty, bland dish of iceberg lettuce, a chunk of pale tomato and croutons out of a box slathered in some ghastly, gelatinous, chemical goop from a bottle that Americans call salad, but a bounty of mixed greens in flagrante delicto with radishes, hearts of palm, avocados, slivered cucumbers, heirloom tomatoes, and green onions, scantily clad in a homemade dressing of imported olive oil, red wine vinegar and Dijon mustard and kissed with a smattering of minced, flat leaf parsley. Salad, in our house, was a thoughtful, deliberate and exquisitely prepared course of every meal. Lettuce did not star in every performance. My mother is gifted with a matchmaking intuition for vegetables: she created an unending concert of salad variations, lightly steamed cauliflower in a French vinaigrette; tomatoes and fresh mozzarella with balsamic vinaigrette and basil; marinated mushrooms; and green leafy vegetables of every kind.
I am going to share with you my fundamental recipe for salad dressing, but first I want to speak for a moment about ingredients.
Olive Oil. Olive oil is the main ingredient in salad dressing and for this reason, you absolutely must use the highest quality olive oil. Buying olive oil can be a bit like buying wine, and the quality greatly impacts the flavor.
Olive oil is made by crushing olives into a paste that is then macerated (stirred to release the oil droplets), before being spun in a centrifuge to extract the oil and water. Once the water has been removed, the resultant product is olive oil. Only about 30% of all olive oil production ends at extracting the oil from the olives.
Avoid refined olive oil. Refined olive oil is made using solvents and high heat to neutralize the tastes of the oil from inferior olives from a wide variety of sources. This process chemically removes the bad tastes resulting from oxidized olives. Products labeled as “Pure Olive Oil” or simply “Olive Oil,” are refined.
Unrefined olive oils bear the labels “extra virgin” and “virgin” olive oil. These oils do not undergo chemical refinement and are the end product of extraction and bottling. Producers must use high quality fruits because there is no chemical process to hide any bad flavors.
Extra virgin olive oil is the highest grade of olive oil. In extra virgin olive oils, the tastes of the fruit is intact and they have higher amounts of nutrients and, possibly, health benefits.
Vinegar. Vinegar can be even more confusing than olive oils, but it is an equally essential ingredient in salad dressing.
Balsamic vinegar is aged for the longest amount of time, getting sweeter and thicker (and more expensive) the longer it is aged. Balsamic vinegar comes in both red and white varieties. On the taste spectrum, it is sweeter than the wine vinegars, but still pairs well with savory salads. White balsamic is significantly sweeter than red, and if you are making a salad with fruits (strawberries, blueberries, peaches), a white balsamic makes a nice choice.
Wine vinegars come in both red and white, with white wine vinegar, and champagne vinegar being more delicate in flavor. Sherry vinegar is another of these, and has a more robust flavor, as does red wine vinegar.
Apple cider vinegar is an inexpensive and mild vinegar. According to the internet, apple cider vinegar, coconut oil and marijuana can cure every malady known to humankind. There is not much evidence to support these claims, but apple cider vinegar, like all vinegars, has chemicals known as polyphenols. They’re antioxidants that can curb cell damage that can lead to other diseases (cancer among them).
Infused vinegars are vinegars that have been infused with various herbs, spices, or other flavors. I do not personally care for them but if you like them, they are perfectly acceptable to use in salad dressing.
Salad Dressing Recipe
1 Tablespoon any acid of your choice (vinegar, lemon juice, lime juice)
3 Tablespoons organic, extra virgin olive oil
1 Tablespoon oil of your choice (if you want a creamier dressing, you can use mayonnaise)
1/2 Teaspoon salt
1/2 Teaspoon pepper (or to taste)
1 Teaspoon Dijon mustard (optional and not for use with any salad that has sweeter ingredients)
It is important to dissolve the salt in the acid first. After that, mix everything together until well blended. The proportions above will perfectly dress a large salad (2 heads of Romaine). You do not want the dressing to overpower the vegetables. It should add a light flavor, not create a swampy mess.
Be creative in what you put into the salad. Fruits can make a nice and interesting change, so think about adding one chopped Honeycrisp apple with 1/4 cup of crumbled goat cheese and 1/2 cup of chopped pecans, lightly warmed in a pan just until they become fragrant, or a two crumbled hard boiled eggs, a chopped avocado and 1/4 cup of pine nuts. If you are not averse to some sugar, 1/2 cup of dried cherries makes a very interesting addition, too. Peppers, radishes, cucumbers, parsley, shallots, hearts of palm, peaches, plums, berries, 4 oz of cooked chicken breast or sliced flank steak, lightly steamed and chilled or raw cauliflower or broccoli…the sky is the limit.