It’s a good time of the year to think about fresh salads and homemade vinaigrette dressings. The bottled dressings that we rely on so often contain a lot of sugar and artificial ingredients. A simple dressing and a healthy salad are easy to make.
The basic method of making a vinaigrette dressing is to finely chop a small shallot. [A shallot is milder than an onion and won’t overpower the dressing.] Then choose some herbs. If they’re fresh, finely chop those, too. Combine the shallots and herbs with a ratio of one part acid to three parts oil. Begin with ¼ cup acid and ¾ cup oil. [The acid can be lemon juice, Balsamic vinegar, red or white wine vinegar, orange juice or another fruit juice. The oil can be olive oil or canola oil or grapeseed oil.] Add a small amount of Dijon mustard [just a teaspoon] to help the oil and vinegar combine smoothly. Whisk well and add a pinch of salt and freshly ground black pepper.
Oregano and basil go well with traditional oil and vinegar dressings. Tarragon and thyme pair very well with chicken and meats. Dill goes beautifully with potatoes and with Greek flavors. Fresh flat leaf parsley (not the curly leaf kind) goes with almost everything. Mint would go nicely with a fruit-based salad.
Here are some suggestions for flavor combinations:
For an Italian Salad (lettuce, tomatoes, chopped bell peppers, artichoke hearts (not marinated, but either frozen and thawed, or in water only) good quality black olives, and perhaps cubed mozzarella cheese or cooked pasta or chopped salami or prosciutto), make a vinaigrette of shallot, a handful of fresh basil and oregano (or a tablespoon of each of the dried herbs), and then ¼ cup red wine vinegar and ¾ cup olive oil.
For a Spinach and Fruit salad, combine baby spinach leaves, dried cranberries, chopped pistachios (or pecans or walnuts), and either mandarin orange segments or chopped peaches or nectarines or pomegranate seeds (or a combination of all of those fruits!). Make a vinaigrette dressing of ½ cup pure pomegranate juice, ¼ cup pure orange juice, 2 tablespoons of red wine vinegar, and ¾ cup light oil (like canola or grapeseed) and 2 teaspoons of honey or maple syrup. Taste and add a little more honey or maple syrup if needed.
Make a Tuna Salad with mixed greens, drained white beans, chopped celery, grated carrots, tuna, and chopped hard-boiled eggs. Toss that gently with a vinaigrette dressing of chopped shallot, 1 part white wine vinegar, a couple of teaspoons of Dijon mustard and three parts olive oil.
How about a Greek Salad? Combine lettuce, tomatoes, chopped Feta cheese, Kalamata olives, thinly sliced red onion, chopped cucumbers with a simple homemade Tzaziki sauce (pronounced tzah-ZEE-kee – the first syllable is like the zz in pizza with that tz sound). Combine 16 ounces of plain Greek yogurt with two peeled, seeded and finely chopped cucumbers. Add 2 Tbsp olive oil and the juice of a small lemon. Stir in a couple of garlic cloves, finely minced, and a handful of fresh dill, finely chopped. Refrigerate for a couple of hours before serving. Tzaziki is delicious as a dip for fresh vegetables, too!
Try a different Chicken Salad. Combine fresh greens with chopped cooked chicken, halved green grapes, chopped celery, chopped fresh tarragon with just a little mayonnaise (about ¼ to ½ cup at the most) mixed with a teaspoon of honey. Just make sure to go easy on the mayonnaise so the salad ingredients are the star, and it’s not a gloppy mess.
Make a regular garden salad, of greens, tomatoes, fresh vegetables (peppers, cucumbers, radishes, whatever is fresh and affordable and available that you like in a salad) and turn it into a Steak Salad. Grill or broil your favorite steak cut, such as London Broil (choose a steak that’s best served thinly sliced, not one intended to be served like a T-bone), and slice the meat after it’s cooked to medium rare and after it’s rested for 10 minutes. Lay the slices over the salad, sprinkle blue cheese over everything, and drizzle with a simple combination of ¼ cup red wine vinegar and ½ cup olive oil.
A very simple Potato Salad can be made by combining boiled chopped Yukon Gold potatoes, chopped hard-boiled eggs, diced peeled and seeded cucumbers, and just enough mayonnaise and Dijon mustard to help the salad stay together. Add some salt to taste. For a 5 pound bag of potatoes (a Potato Salad for a crowd) you might need a little more than a cup of mayonnaise and a quarter cup of Dijon. Make sure the mayonnaise and Dijon don’t drown the salad.
When making your own vinaigrette dressing, just remember that if all you’ve ever had is bottled commercial dressing, a homemade one won’t taste as sweet, and it will taste fresher. And don’t be afraid to use nearly any fresh herb, such as flat leaf parsley, basil, oregano, thyme or tarragon. Add garlic if you like, as long as it’s finely minced or grated or very thinly sliced so you don’t find a huge chunk of garlic in your salad. Dijon mustard is a great addition to an oil and vinegar dressing. And don’t forget to taste the dressing before pouring it on the salad. Try to think about whether it needs a bit more acidity or a little sweetness from just a touch of honey or maple syrup. And go light when you’re pouring dressing on a salad. The dressing should lightly coat the greens and other ingredients and shouldn’t be pooling in the bottom of the salad bowl. Don’t add all the dressing you’ve made. Add a little and taste a bit of lettuce before adding more dressing.
If you want more inspiration, look at the bottled salad dressings the next time you’re at the grocery store. If you see a flavor that you like, such as raspberry vinaigrette, then re-create that at home. Crush fresh raspberries through a sieve so the seeds are separated from the juice. Measure the juice and add three times as much of a neutral oil (canola or grapeseed). Add a small drizzle of red wine vinegar or lemon juice. You’ll soon find out that you can have the delicious flavors without the xantham gums, sugars, thickeners, and everything else that goes into a processed salad dressing. You can find lots of flavor combinations to make at home by just browsing through the salad dressing aisle. If you have a favorite bottled dressing, feel free to ask me about it and I’ll help you find a recipe for it so you can make it without all the chemicals and additives.
If you want to use wine vinegar or Balsamic vinegar in dressings, just be aware of two things: 1/ don’t buy any wine vinegar that has sugar added (and NEVER buy cooking wine – it’s just sugared cheap weird stuff); and 2/ don’t buy Balsamic vinegar that has caramel color added. I have checked recently and even places like Walmart and ordinary grocery stores (not just the nicer gourmet stores) offer a Balsamic vinegar choice that contains only vinegar and grape must (that’s the term for the skins and grape pieces left over from the wine making that is the foundation of the Balsamic vinegar-making process).