Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Dressing It Up


Crisp salads have appealed to me since I was a child. Summertime in Georgia can be hot as Hades, and for those of us that spent most of our lives without air conditioning, the quest for a decent meal in the three hottest months can often be a lost cause. I can recall loooooooong periods of time each year in which my daily menu consisted of cold cereal for breakfast (best when topped with fresh berries), a cheese and pickle sandwich for lunch, a juicy, runny, sticky, messy sweet-as-pie peach for a snack, and a gigantic salad for dinner. Matter of fact, this tradition, born when I was maybe eight years old, continued with only minor embellishments until I turned thirty. Now that I actually have air conditioning, it isn't too much of a stretch for me to eat a hot meal or two during the summer, but I still crave those salads...

Mom and I had two stainless steel bowls that we ate most meals out of. They were huge bowls, maybe quart-sized, and they were considered (by me, at least) to be our greatest treasures. You could have told me they were family silver, and I would have gladly believed you. As far as I was concerned, no other dish could then (or even still now, I think) have more significance in my life. For years, My Bowl (the other one belonged to mom, though we didn't delineate exactly which one belonged to the other) was my cereal bowl in the morning and my salad bowl at night. Those bowls are long gone now, as far as I know, and while I am content to eat my cereal out of any old receptacle these days, I still long to put my salad in a giant, stainless steel bowl.

The best salads of my childhood were picked straight from mom's garden, and they were simple, often no more than lettuce, alfalfa sprouts, and cheese, topped with sunflower seeds, wheat germ, and some salad dressing or another that I have no memory of. The salads tended to be gritty, as mom has never been known to wash the dirt or, um, the (shudder at the memory) manure off of her fresh-picked produce. To this day, anytime I grumble as I pick a clod of what I hope is only dirt out of my teeth, mom will flippantly say, with a mouth full of salad and without even looking up, "You know, people eat a peck of dirt in their lifetime."

I have no idea where she got that, er, nugget of information, and I suspect she doesn't even remember herself, but I stick by the reply I have always given her, that eating a peck of dirt is NOT a requirement. But as long as there were no bugs, which mom refers to as "protein," I never bothered to complain too much about my dirty salads.

My salads have changed a little over the years, and now are most often a mixture of romaine and baby spinach, topped with sliced red onion, a whoppingly large handful of garbanzo beans (I eat these things as a snack, too), some crumbled feta or goat cheese, and dressed with a fresh vinaigrette. I cannot, under any circumstances, abide by store-bought salad dressings any longer. I will occasionally deviate from the vinaigrette and try a new recipe for a green goddess dressing or a creamy gorgonzola dressing, but I always come back to my favorite, especially in the dog days of summer, those yummy oil and vinegar based dressings.

I have been experimenting with different vinaigrette recipes for the past year - I get on a bandwagon and can't seem to find a way to step off - and I have found there are more different approaches to vinaigrette than people who even eat salads. I have a couple of unswerving requirements: the only oil I will use is olive oil (and now it must be organic), and a ratio of equal parts oil to vinegar. Many people, including classic Italian chefs, prefer to overload on the oil and relegate the vinegar to the background, but I vehemently disagree. Sure, olive oil is the heart-healthy kind of fat, and sure its delicious as all get out, but I've always been a face-puckering vinegar lover. And now that I have filled my cabinets with a dizzying array of vinegars with which to choose from, I have been known to do impromptu vinegar tastings with Odd Toddler (sort of like wine tastings, and nearly as highbrow, but a more acceptable alternative for a two year old than, um, alcohol - though we all know where vinegar comes from...).

I have two current favorites for vinaigrette recipes, neither of which are original (my favorite original and very bold rendition appeared way back here).

MISTO SALAD DRESSING (Misto is an Atlanta restaurant from the guy who ran Burrito Art, my favorite now-defunct East Atlanta restaurant; this recipe was printed in the AJC Food Section). This is Pretty Girl's favorite, I think.
  • 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/3 cup balsamic vinegar
  • 1 Tbs freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 1/2 tsp whole-grain mustard
  • 1/8 tsp chopped fresh garlic
  • 1/8 tsp sea salt
  • 1/8 tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 large fresh basil leaves, chopped
  • 1/2 tsp Italian seasoning
  1. In a blender or food processor, or in a bowl using a whisk, whip together the oil and vinegar.
  2. Whip in the lemon juice.
  3. Add the mustard, garlic, salt, pepper and basil.
  4. Crush the Italian seasoning (or just throw it in, like I do), and add to the vinaigrette.
  5. Whisk the dressing to emulsify.

FRESH HERB VINAIGRETTE (from the August 2005 issue of Better Homes and Gardens). This one if my newest obsession.

  • 1/3 cup olive oil
  • 1/3 cup white or red wine vinegar (I prefer the more mellow red wine vinegar to the white)
  • 1 Tbs snipped fresh thyme, oregano, or basil (my current choice is basil, but I plan to try every fresh herb I can think of - I wonder how rosemary would do?)
  • 1 tsp Dijon mustard
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1/8 tsp black pepper
  1. Combine all ingredients in a screw-top jar (or one of those Good Seasons cruets - I am in luuuurve with those things) and shake well.


yolie said...

I clicked on the link to "pretty girl" wondering who you had linked. I couldn't help but smile when I saw me and CJ smiling back. You're too sweet. Love you, Yolie

Pumpkin said...

Sarah I've made both dressings and am about to turn into spinich I've been eating so much salad - YUM.