Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Tips and tricks - homemade salad dressing

Despite my claim in a recent blog post that I don't enjoy salads in winter, every so often, usually after a few days of eating rich food, I feel like some simple greens for supper. But with one stipulation: no bottled dressing!

I only reach for the bottled stuff, with its myriad of mysterious ingredients such as xanthan gum and potassium sorbate, when I'm at my laziest, and I pretty much always regret it. Because there is no substitute for homemade, and really it couldn't be easier.

At its most basic all you need for a decent salad dressing is oil and vinegar. But buying a good quality olive oil - I enjoy Olio Carli for its fruitiness - makes a big difference. Find one you like the flavour of, and use that oil for dressings and other things like dipping bread into, while keeping a cheaper olive oil on hand for cooking with.

As for the vinegar, I have a few bottles in my pantry, as it's nice to have options depending on the kind of lettuce you're going to be eating - some common ones include red wine vinegar, white wine vinegar, apple cider vinegar, balsamic vinegar, and rice wine vinegar. But you can use other things to add tartness to the oil - the rind and juice of most citrus fruits works well.

The general thinking as far as ratio of oil to vinegar is using three parts oil to one part vinegar. I like my dressing on the tart side so I tend to add more vinegar but it's all a matter of personal preference.

So, a few glugs of oil, a splash or two of vinegar, some salt and pepper to taste and all that's left to do is toss it with your salad.

There are a few other ingredients you can add that will really perk things up - for example I learned at my cooking class last night that adding a squeeze of fresh lemon juice to an oil and vinegar dressing will really bring out the flavours of the other ingredients.

If you find your dressing is too tart, add a teaspoon or two of honey or maple syrup. Honey is my favourite choice as maple syrup can be too dominant, but if maple is your thing, give it a try.

Don't like the separation factor of oil and vinegar? Add something to emulsify the dressing and give it a uniform appearance - Dijon mustard works well. Egg is another emulsifier but not everyone likes to consume raw egg, and of course there's the worry of salmonella poisoning.

There's a lot of room for experimentation where salad dressing is concerned, and so many possible additions and combinations, all of them relatively simple. Consider any of the following ingredients: ginger, soy sauce, miso paste, anchovies, parmesan cheese, Worcestershire sauce, fennel seeds, dried spices, fresh herbs - the list is endless of what you can add. And play around with the dressing until you find the right balance - keep tasting it until you're happy with the results.

If you find you're eating a lot of salads make a large portion and keep it in the fridge - depending on the ingredients you'll probably be able to use it for upwards of a week.

One trick I learned from Chef At Home host Michael Smith is to make dressing in a Mason jar. Throw all the ingredients in the bottom and either whiz them together using your immersion blender (one of my essential kitchen tools), whisk them together quickly, or, simplest of all, screw the lid on and give the mixture a good shake.

Salads can be uninspiring, but I guarantee you that taking that extra two to five minutes to make your own dressing will make a world of difference. You may never go back to the pre-bottled variety again!

Here's a very simple and tasty dressing I whipped up tonight to use in a simple salad of hydroponic Ontario green lettuce and sliced McIntosh apples, based on a recipe by Chef Michael Smith.

Honey Lime Dressing

The juice and zest of 4 limes
A few heaping spoonfuls of honey
A spoonful of mustard
A cupful of olive oil
A sprinkle or two of salt and pepper

Combine all ingredients in a bowl or Mason jar and mix well to combine.

Makes about two cups.

Recipe courtesy Chef At Home, Michael Smith, Whitecap Books, 2005



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