much ado about dressings

So, salad dressings.  For Christmas this year a kind friend gave me this unusual gift, which I can only describe as a rack with three amphorae of dressing ingredients hanging from it, olive oil, red wine vinegar, and balsamic.  The little bottles are very quirky!  I suppose the idea of it is to have on the table, for people to dress their own salads?  Anyway, the gift seemed to come at a good time, when I am more than usually interested in experimenting with salads!  As promised, I want to mention some ideas for salad dressings.

The first thing I would say is that dressings are the most forgiving of food preparations, and it’s almost impossible to completely botch it!  So for inexperienced cooks, dressings are a great place to start.  Just go with your tastebuds, adding ingredients and flavourings a little at a time.  And the second thing I would say is that, though they seem simple, a dressing makes or breaks a salad!  It’s more of a method than a recipe, and it lends itself to artistry!

I like to make two different styles of dressings, Western and Asian.  I have found that a basic jar of each can be a good basis of improvisation.  Make your base dressings and keep in the fridge, simply decant a quantity of the base dressing and add the flavourings your daily salad seems to be asking for.

For the basic Western dressing, the classic standard is one part acidic ingredient, such as wine, balsamic, apple cider or other vinegar, lemon juice, or a combination of acidic fruit juice and vinegar, to three parts oil, like olive, grapeseed, canola, almond, walnut, etc.  The oil gives the dressing coating ability, and, if a flavoured oil like olive or walnut oil is used, also flavour.  Basic seasonings would be salt and pepper.

I find this classic dressing too oily for my taste, so I usually reduce the vinegar oil ratio to 1:1.  Of course this now creates a problem, the oil and vinegar separate.  So I solve this problem by adding a binding ingredient…either french mustard, miso, or tahini (sesame paste).  Whether you choose to add a thickener or go with the higher oil content, the last step is to jazz the dressing by incorporating other flavours, like fresh or dried herbs, spices, crushed garlic, crushed nuts, sesame seeds, or even chopped or pureed fresh fruit (eg. peach or apricot).  So as you can see, though dressings are humble and simple on the face of it, they offer enormous scope for creativity!

I would have to say my favourites would have to  be Asian dressings.  Because they don’t usually use oils these dressings are light and fresh, perfect for hot summer days, and very compatible partners for seafood!  There is no classic standard for Asian dressings, however, I find an easy place to start is with one part acidic ingredient (eg. rice vinegar, lime juice cut with water, or lemon juice, pineapple juice, or combination of more than one of these) to one part salty ingredient (eg. fish sauce, soy sauce, or miso thinned a little with water).  Because these dressings have no oil they don’t need a binder, but they can benefit from thickening; it helps the dressing to coat the salad.  Here I’m thinking, miso, tahini, or a little mild mustard, or even a pureed fruit, like mango.  Because the salt is included in the liquid seasoning, there is no need to add extra salt, but to cut the harsh acidity these dressings need a spoonful of sweetener.  Try brown, dark brown, demerara, or something a little more out there, like palm or coconut sugar.  Or perhaps honey, or rice, malt or maple syrup, or, a nod to my macrobiotic days, apple juice concentrate.  If you have added pureed fruit you’ve sweetened and thickened at the same time.

Once you have your basic dressing, time to add a few seasonings from the likes of ginger, garlic, spring onion, chillies, coriander leaves, black sesame seeds, finely chopped fresh pineapple or mango, finely shredded lime leaves, or plunge in a crushed stalk of lemongrass and stir around to inject some flavour.

Oh dear, is it all getting too complicated?  Then try this simplest of ideas: get a jar of sushi seasoning, which is a pre-made combination of rice vinegar, sweetener and salt, available at Asian groceries, or here in Australia, even the grocery store.  Add a couple of flavouring items from the list, eg, coriander, garlic and chilli, for an instant zingy dressing!  I like to keep sushi seasoning on hand, it is an extremely useful cook’s cheat!

So what to do with these dressings?  Start with your salad ingredients…what is in your fridge today?  Are your ingredients singing to you, western or asian style?  Here is a salad I made a few days ago, again using tomatoes from the garden, leftover grilled chicken, shredded carrot and purple cabbage, frilly lettuce, cucumber and coriander.  (The sliced chicken is hiding underneath!)For the dressing I used a simple Asian base combination of rice vinegar and fish sauce, and added demerara sugar, jalapeno pepper, garlic, and crushed peanuts.

One word of warning about the base dressings, if you do choose to use a fruit juice as your acidic ingredient your dressing will have a limited lifespan, and should certainly be kept in the fridge.  I recommend keeping all dressings in the fridge, and removing a little while before using if oils are used, to give the thickened dressing a chance to come to room temperature.

There is much more I would like to say about these humblest members of a cooks repertoire, including some specific recipes, but I will leave it for another time.  Also, I still didn’t mention just why I’m so obsessed with salads at the moment, but I think I’ll leave that for another time too!  And finally, before I go, you might like to have a look at some of the articles below for additional ideas on dressings…

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1 Response to much ado about dressings

  1. kalima123 says:

    Wonderful post, great recipes, and beautiful salad! Thank you!

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