Salad days: fresh greens and homemade dressing
Take advantage of the season with a variety of fresh greens and a simple, homemade dressing
Igrew up in an era of dodgy salads. Picnics involved three-bean salad dumped straight from the tin and doused in vinegar. No large gathering was complete without a jellied salad, usually so studded with pineapple chunks and mini marshmallows it verged on dessert. Green salad was iceberg lettuce drowned in a sugary red dressing that resembled thin ketchup. Little wonder I turned to baking.
Today, salads are far more enticing. Farmers markets and grocery stores offer a wide range of leafy greens, hearty cabbages and even a variety of kale. Restaurants offer salad bowls that are complete meals.
It’s Easy Being Green
If you want to branch beyond iceberg and romaine, consider these the next time you shop for produce.
Tender lettuces: Boston, bibb and butterhead lettuce look a bit like a cross between iceberg and romaine but are more tender and have a buttery taste. Their light colour and delicate flavour pair well with dark, spicier greens like arugula or radicchio.
The Chicories: Endive, frisée and radicchio fall into this category. Loved (or hated) for their bitterness, chicories can add visual appeal and texture to salads, as well as some bite. Prickly frisée contrasts with tender leaves, while ruby and white radicchio adds colour. Pale endive complements any dark green.
The Babies: Young and tender, baby arugula, spinach and kale can be used interchangeably in most salads. Not only are these young leaves less pungent than their full-grown counterparts, they are low-maintenance. They don’t need to be chopped, and baby kale doesn’t need to be massaged.
Buying and Storing
Regardless of which greens you buy, look for fresh produce that isn’t wilted or damaged. Once home, refrigerate sealed packages of greens right away. If you bought your greens in bunches, rinse them in cold water and then spin them dry in a salad spinner or pat them dry in towels. Refrigerate in a loose plastic bag lined with dry paper towels to absorb excess moisture. They should keep for up to a week.
Five Elements of Salad Dressing
Homemade salad dressing is one of those ludicrously simple items that makes you wonder why you don’t make it more often. It takes all of two minutes, requires no specialized equipment and can be finetuned to suit any palate. No matter what type of dressing you’re after, most contain these basic elements:
1 Oil: Olive oil is my preference, but a neutral-tasting oil, such as canola, grapeseed or safflower work well. Sesame oil and roasted nut oils can be overpowering on their own, so mix them in equal parts with your plain oil of choice. Traditionally, the oil to acid ratio is 3:1, but I prefer 2:1 or even equal parts oil and acid.
2 Acid: Plain white vinegar is a bit harsh. Less aggressive alternatives include balsamic, red wine, white wine, apple cider, sherry or even champagne vinegar. Fresh lemon juice can be substituted for some or all of the vinegar while a splash of lime juice goes well with citrus-based salads.
3 Sweet: To balance the acid, add some sweet. You can use white table sugar, but you’ll add more flavour with coconut sugar, brown sugar, honey, maple syrup, apple juice, frozen orange juice concentrate or even jam.
4 Salt: A generous pinch or two is usually enough. If you’re cutting back on salt, skip it in the dressing and let diners add some finishing salt at the table.
5 Aromatics: These optional additions bring the dressing to life. Minced fresh herbs, shallots, citrus rind, black pepper and/or garlic add flavour and variety. A pinch of mustard will keep the dressing emulsified.
For a creamy dressing, add a tablespoon or two of mayonnaise, sour cream, Greek yogurt or buttermilk.
Shake it up, baby!
Combine all the ingredients in a small mason jar with a tight-fitting lid and shake to combine. If using a small bowl, whisk the oil into the other ingredients. Dip a piece of lettuce in the dressing to taste and adjust as necessary. Store any unused dressing in the refrigerator.