Tuesday, April 21, 2009

REAL MEN COOK XII: Salad Dressing

“The embarrassing thing is that the salad dressing is outgrossing my films.”
-Paul Newman

Salads just don't get any respect. Most folks throw a bunch of stuff together on that shallow plate at the salad bar and try to eat it at your table without getting it everywhere and never think about the blend of ingredients and especially the dressing. What salad dressing you put on top can be the difference between rabbit food and a meal, it enhances and blends flavors while bringing another layer of taste and enjoyment on top of the greens.

Yet people will simply dump on what they always do, taking their favorite dressing and moving on like a machine. Salad Dressing can be wonderful and it is definitely an under appreciated part of a meal; more so than the lowly salad.

I'm going to share a family secret here, a simple dressing recipe my mom has made for years. Its a basic ranch dressing that can be used as a template for many others.

Mom's Ranch Dressing:
1 cup mayonnaise
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon milk
pinch salt
3 shakes pepper

That's it. You blend the ingredients until they are smooth and you have a creamy, basic ranch dressing. It probably isn't even all that secret, I suspect many people make their ranch dressing in a similar way.

So from this base you can move off in different directions. There was a Mexican restaurant in town here that had great food (we get a lot of good mexican restaurants up here, from immigrant workers who moved up or stayed) and a ranch dressing that was spicy, and you can have it too. Just blend up a jalapeno into the mix (I find a hand blender, technically called an "immersion blender" works well for this kind of thing, since its not enough to justify a food processor), and you've got spicy ranch.

Take half a medium cucumber (or a small one), peeled. Chop it up and toss in a chopped up, slightly smooshy avocado into the blender and puree it into the dressing and you have a wonderful creamy green dressing. I'd call it Green Goddess, but that involves anchovys.

You can toss in crumbled bacon or blended onions (or garlic, you can use granulated or powdered versions as well for a less fresh taste), or mix in some mustard powder for a different bite, some honey for a more sweet version I don't care for, and so on. Just varying this ranch base slighly can result in wonderful salad dressing. For an extra creamy, wonderful version you can cut the mayo with half sour cream (plain yogurt isn't as effective for this), and with double the liquid you can use cream cheese as well, but its tough to get blended up in the cool ingredients.

Generally speaking, any herb will work with a salad, and many spices. That said, it is best to be careful with meat spices like mace and sage, and sweet spices such as allspice and cinnamon tend not to work well either.

Another classic is the vinagrette. This is a really simple base of oil and vinegar: one part vinegar, three parts oil. With this base you can make a host of different variations. Merely using oil and vinegar can work fine, but adding in various herbs and spices works even better.

Throw some red pepper flakes or lots of black pepper in for a spicy dressing. Grate the lemon peel (not too deeply, just the surface, as described in my Lemon Fried Chicken recipe) and put lemon juice in for half the vinegar and you get a tasty citrus dressing (doesn't store as long as the vinegar version though). One warning: if you use olive oil for the dressing, it doesn't refrigerate well. Olive Oil solidifies at a pretty high temperature, so it will turn into a solid block in the fridge.

Using different vinegars can give you interesting results as well. Red wine vinegar you have to be careful with, it's pretty strong in flavor so you will need to choose milder herbs and spices. Balsamic vinegar is wonderful stuff - but get the real thing. You want actual balsamic vinegar, not regular vinegar with flavors. If the ingredients list caramel coloring, you've got the fake kind. Real balsamic is expensive but worth it.

Take a new look at your dressing, next time. It's more than just a condiment, it is a sauce that enhances your meal. And its not just cheap, its easy to make your own.


Eric said...

So what happens if you substitute the mayo with Miracle Whip?

*dodges C_T's kung fu assault*

Anonymous said...

Jalapeno? Heck, through in some Jabaneros for real heat.

Christopher Taylor said...

Actually mom used to use Miracle Whip wayyy back in the early 70s and I didn't like it much. She pretty much abandoned the stuff because we found out dad had diabetes and realized everything was much better without it.

Still, *boot to the head*