How to Dress a Salad

26 July 2012

Easier said than done. The simplest salad--leaves, oil, vinegar, salt--can be an amazing dish when you know a few key things. One: The basic ratio for salad dressing is three parts oil to one part vinegar. Second: Do you know how many times you have to wash lettuce? As many times as it takes to get it clean. Wash, taste, wash taste until there is no grit whatsoever and spin until very dry so you're not watering down you're dressing. (By the way if you wash a thoroughly dry greens when you get them home they'll last a lot longer in the fridge than if they're stored wet.) Third: Season first. A pinch of salt and a couple twists from the pepper mill when the salad is mostly dry will give you uniform seasoning throughout. Fourth: You'll often hear chefs say "dress the bowl." This is another way of saying don't use too much dressing, just enough dressing to lightly coat the bowl is plenty. Number four has to do with the bowl itself. It should be big enough to be only about half full so you can gently toss the greens getting them evenly, lightly coated with dressing. If it's too full you'll end up with unevenly dressed salad and lettuce all over the place. You can move it to individual plates or a smaller bowl to serve unless you don't want to wash two bowls and you're not worried about what the neighbors will say about you serving something in a bowl that's mostly empty. Lastly, serve it soon. Greens wilt fast once they're dressed especially on a hot summer day. There a lots of things you can prepare ahead of time in the kitchen. Save dressing the salad for last, it only takes a second anyway.

Play with the type of oil. Olive oil is not the only choice, you can splurge on delicious nut oils (just remember they don't keep for too long even in the fridge) or you can save a few bucks using more neutral oils like sunflower or safflower. In any case make sure you taste your oil to make sure it hasn't gone rancid. The distinctive bitterness of bad oil will ruin anything and I've bought plenty of oil from grocery stores that's already rancid before it ever made it to the kitchen.

Vinegar is almost as limitless as wine. Try different kinds. Fortunately vinegar lasts forever so you can have a variety on hand. Don't bother with balsamic unless you're willing to drop about fifty bucks. Anything else is a cheap imitation of the real thing which takes decades to produce and warrants the price tag. There are plenty of great kinds of vinegar for those of us with more reasonable bud- gets: White wine, red wine, sherry, and champagne vinegars are all great options. A spoonful of minced shallot, a pinch of chopped herbs and a dab of dijon mustard and you have a classic vinaigrette. Just like all the great things we do in the kitchen vinaigrette is one of those areas where there are limitless possibilities with just a few ingredients. Once you've got the basics covered you can, of course, make all kinds of additions. Capers, anchovies, hard boiled eggs, nuts, cheese, meat, fruit, bread. But the beauty of a well-dressed salad is that you can be lazy and leave out all the fancy stuff and still have something tasty and so nutritious you can never eat enough of it.

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