When I was growing up, my mom, my dad, my sister, and I had dinner as a family almost every night. Usually my mom cooked and included a protein, a starch, and a vegetable in each dinnertime meal. The vegetable was almost never salad; she's simply not a big fan of it. I, on the other hand, love salad, especially the dressing. When my mom does make salad, she prefers it undressed or maybe with just lemon juice. Fortunately, she made dressing for the rest of us on the rare occasions that she did make salad. When I started cooking dinner once a week for the family, when I was about seven-years-old, I wanted to make salad. My mom gave me this simple recipe for vinaigrette:
3 Tb olive oil 1 Tb red wine vinegar juice squeezed from a wedge of lemon1 (peeled) garlic clove (which should be removed before the dressing is poured) 1/4 tsp mustard 1/4 tsp thyme freshly ground pepper
According to Michael Ruhlman, author of The Elements of Cooking and the recent Ratio, which was a recent housewarming gift to me from my mother, the ratio for basic vinaigrette should be three parts oil and one part vinegar. Mom taught me well. I use the recipe she gave to me as a base for other recipes. I almost always use olive oil or extra virgin olive oil. I have discovered that if I leave the garlic clove whole that the dressing is not garlicky enough, but if mince the garlic, the flavor is too garlicky. So I cut the clove into four pieces and let it sit in the vinaigrette and then press it with the back of a fork to release some of the "garlic juice." And I almost always add a pinch or two of salt and sugar. Ultimately, how I make the vinaigrette usually depends on what kind of salad I'm making.
For a standard french vinaigrette, which I usually use with a simple green salad, I use extra virgin olive oil, red wine vinegar, lemon juice, mustard, a garlic clove cut in four (as described above), salt, pepper, and a pinch of sugar.
For potato salad, I use the french vinaigrette plus a dollop or two of mayonnaise (low-fat is fine) and a couple of dashes of paprika. Sometimes I do mince and keep in the garlic because the potatoes can absorb it. The longer the garlic can sit in the vinaigrette, though, the more it cooks and the milder the flavor.
If I am making a spinach salad, I'll often use (regular) olive oil, balsamic vinegar, mustard, a drop of honey, salt, and pepper. Because the balsamic vinegar adds a heavier and sweeter flavor, I'll often omit the honey, but it depends on how sweet the particular vinegar is. I'll dress this salad a bit in advance to let the vinegar cook the spinach a bit.
With tender, tasty greens, such as arugula, I'll make a very simple dressing either with just extra virgin olive oil and lemon, or extra virgin olive oil and sherry vinegar, and sometimes a dash of mustard if I'm going with the sherry vinegar. My favorite arugula salad involves arugula, caramelized onions and finely chopped hard-boiled eggs that have been slightly undercooked. Greens like arugula are also often tasty with a nut-based oil rather then olive, like walnut oil.
For a Greek Salad, I'll use olive oil, red wine vinegar, lemon, dill, and a dash of mustard and a pinch of sugar.
For an Asian slaw, cucumber salad (I scoop out the seeds first), or even a green or spinach salad with julienned carrots, red peppers and cucumbers, I'll use sesame or peanut oil, rice vinegar, a couple dashes of soy sauce, fresh ginger, and some brown or white sugar, The fresh ginger should be minced. If you don't want a strong ginger flavor, let it sit in the vinaigrette a while and then remove it before pouring over the sald.
I adore Caesar Salad. (This is an aside, but the best and most affordable Caesar Salad I've ever had and I've had lots, is the one at Bodo's Bagels in Charlottesville, although be forewarned that sometimes they overdress or underdress, but they'll give you extra dressing when they underdress.) I use The Joy of Cooking's recipe as a base for my own Caesar dressing. The only difference is I use only extra-virgin olive oil and no butter and I don't add eggs and I change the ratios a bit to make it less oily and I add a dash or two of red wine vinegar. I do include anchovies, but use paste from a tube.
I don't usually go for creamy dressings, the exceptions being creamy cilantro-lime dressing and blue cheese dressing. I don't make blue dressing myself because my husband is lactose intolerant, but I may try this recipe soon. The cilantro-lime dressing I managed to eke out using my food processor was inspired by the creamy cilantro-lime dressing they serve up at Sticks Kebob Shop in Charlottesville (but also in Richmond now, I just found out!!!) Unfortunately, I don't recall the specific recipe I used (probably because there wasn't one), but it included the following ingredients: freshly squeezed lime juice, red wine or apple cider vinegar, fresh cilantro, reduced-fat or no-fat sour cream, olive oil, a bit of mayonnaise, one or two cloves of garlic, paprika, fresh jalapeno, and some honey. I know the amounts of ingredients that I would put in as I was preparing the dressing, but I wouldn't measure them or anything. I would use relatively small amounts to start and limit the stronger-flavored ingredients, like the vinegar and honey to just a dash. Once I mixed them all up, I would taste it and see what it needed.This dressing can be used on salad, to accompany grilled meats or vegetables, or as a dip.
As for bottled dressings, most I don't care for, but there are a few I swear by:
3. Goddess Dressing. I had this stuff for the first time at a twin-twin play date in Oakland and I was hooked! Annie's Naturals makes this in a natural or organic version (not quite sure what the difference is), but Trader Joe's version is just as tasty and about half the price. I'll soon try the Full Circle brand version of it that I found at Ukrop's here in Ashland.
4. When I do have a hankering for blue cheese dressing, I shell out the extra few bucks for Marie's.