No, it’s not another post about fall fashion, though the recent Balenciaga shirt I saw in this week’s NYT fall fashion “T” magazine (see photo insert) is the ugliest thing I have ever seen; I wouldn’t wear that skin-colored frock to a rock fight. I’m writing about dressing, the stuff you put on your salad, on top of white beans, lentils, or something you roast your beets in. And not that salty stick to your mouth oily mess you buy in Safeway. Please people, do your heart, your tongue, and me a favor; make your own. Get thee:
1) The best olive you can buy/afford. I prefer Greek, Spanish, or Turkish and not anything that is a blend. Don’t buy any contained in a plastic container, or looks like it has been sitting on a shelf for months. Also, don’t always trust those special wine and vinegar stores that have oil in metal casks; I went to one last week and tried every oil and most of them tasted stale. Your oil should be smooth with no plasticky aftertaste. Bitter or hot notes at the back of your palette is good, but just make sure it tastes good, is first-cold pressed, and if possible, comes in a dark container (light kills good oil too).
2) Fresh garlic. I’ve mentioned this before and I’ll say it again; if you use that pre-minced stuff, I will come to your house and stick needles in your eyes. Feel your garlic bulb, making sure it is firm, not moldy, and there are no green shoots coming out the top (a sure sign the garlic is getting old). Talk to your local farmer’s market garlic seller. Buy the BEST.
3) Vinegar or fresh lemon. The three vinegars I used most are red wine vinegar, sherry vinegar, and balsamic vinegar in that order. Again, get the best you can afford. With red wine vinegar, I find some of the cheaper ones actually pretty good and forgiving. This doesn’t mean you have to buy expensive balsamic or sherry vinegar, but do a little taste testing, if possible. Good food is wrought from carefully and lovingly selected foodstuffs.
– peel ONE decent sized garlic bulb for each 2 people served. Cut in half and degerm (take out the middle germ — but the fresher the garlic, the smaller/less bitter the germ).
– smash up in mortar and pestle with a bit of salt (not iodized salt for god’s sake). If you don’t have a mortar and pestle, slice the garlic and then with the flat side of your knife, smoosh it against your cutting board with salt. Or the cheater version is to use a nutmeg grater, adding the salt afterward. Put garlic in salad serving bowl
– Add 2-3 splashes of vinegar/acid
– With small whisk in hand, drizzle oil into bowl, whisking as you go until dressing is emulsified. Add pepper. Taste. Add more vinegar, salt, or oil if needed. Do NOT add more garlic at this point.
– Put all your greens into bowl and MIX WITH YOUR HANDS (not a spoon, not with gloves) making sure each and every leaf is coated with the dressing, which ensures that every bite is delicious. Please do not let guests pour their dressing in a big glop over their salads; they will never get the right mix. If you think there is too much dressing, add more leaves a little at a time.
– NOTE 1: don’t add much more to your salads, unless it is finely slivered pecorino or toasted pine nuts or something similarly light
The rule I follow is this: if there is an ingredient that sinks to the bottom, I don’t add it. Heavy tomatoes on spinach? Never. Put them on the side, or better yet, add them to the dressing first, then take them out and mix the salad separately. One should never be rooting around the bottom of the salad bowl for fixings. In other words, salad parts should have the same relative weight. Use your salad as a base if you like, which is what I am doing tonight when I roast sweet potatoes, carrots, beets, and parsnips. I make the salad (this time with balsamic) and roast the veg separately, then put the side by side or veg atop salad, like a finely made hat.
NOTE 2: Don’t use balsamic vinegar on everything. Often it’s too heavy for most lettuces and never use on iceberg lettuce. Iceberg lettuce should only be used with skeet shooting. Let red wine vinegar be your default; I use it with white bean salads, lentils, tomatoes, or pasta salads (or at least I would use it on pasta salads if I made pasta salads).
So toss away those matching cruets sets and sticky bottles clogging up your fridge and your arteries, and make your own dressing.
P.S. I buy all my sherry vinegar at the Spanish Table via mail order and I always roast my beets in oregano and balsamic dressing.