When I was in college, I went to a lot of all-you-can-eat salad bars. That’s what we did when we wanted to be healthy. I would pile my (tiny) plate with iceberg lettuce, a few waterlogged raw veggies, weird soy stick things, shredded cheese, and some of the slimy bean mixture (for protein!) — and then bathe the whole mess in gluey fat-free salad dressing that made everything taste a little like plastic. No wonder I avoided salads for at least a decade after graduation.
Now, as a full-fledged adult, I can’t exactly avoid salads. And I don’t want to, because I love salad. What I avoid, however, is bottled salad dressing. Much like that icky goo at the Pizza Hut salad bar, most bottled dressing is full of ingredients with names you can’t pronounce and wouldn’t want to eat — ingredients that do nothing except take the place of fat or ensure that the stuff in the bottle will survive on the shelf until the next Ice Age.
First, salads are extremely good for you, but they really aren’t supposed to be fat free. As we all in this enlightened age now know, fat is good. Especially the kind of fat you (should) use to make salad dressing: olive oil. Next, I can’t think of a single reason that you’d want a salad dressing that will keep forever, can you?
As much as I don’t like the idea of consuming weird chemicals, what I really dislike about bottled dressing is how bad it tastes — kind of chemical-y, stale, and overly pungent. If you make your own, not only will it taste infinitely better than the store-bought kind, but it will also be better for you and much less expensive (I read once that per ounce, salad dressing is the most expensive thing you can buy in the grocery store). In a recent Cooking Class Birthday Party here (I do those now, BTW; more about that later I promise!), all nine girls in attendance made their own vinaigrette from a variety of oils, vinegars, and flavorings we had at the “Salad Dressing Bar.” I tasted them all, and every one of them beat Wish Bone by a mile (did I mention they were made my 10-year-olds? In about 5 minutes?).
Here’s my favorite method for making homemade vinaigrette. Sure, you can whisk and drizzle in a bowl to emulsify the oil and acid, but I like to make it in a jar because it’s easier and I can’t tell the difference in the taste, plus it’s great to have a jar of homemade dressing on hand so you don’t need to pull out the ingredients to make it (not that it’s hard) every time you feel like throwing some lettuce in a bowl. In case you’ve never made vinaigrette before, the only thing you really need to know is the ratio of 3:1 — that’s 3 parts oil to 1 part acid (usually vinegar or lemon juice). With that ratio, you really can’t screw it up.
This time of year, I love making salads with leftover grilled meats and vegetables piled on top of greens. It’s the perfect lunch or easy supper. This light, lemony vinaigrette is also great on cooked split peas, pasta, raw kale, green beans, and roasted vegetables. The oil will solidify in the fridge (real olive oil does that, eureka), so just set it out a few minutes before you want to eat it or run the jar under hot water.
Homemade Lemon-Parsley Vinaigrette
2 tbs. fresh lemon juice (about 1 lemon)
1 small shallot, finely minced
1/8-1/4 cup fresh Italian parsley, chopped
6 tbs. extra virgin olive oil (This is a great chance to use that bottle of fancy olive oil you received as a hostess gift that has been sitting decoratively on your shelf since the holidays.)
Salt & freshly ground pepper
Put the first 4 ingredients in a jar with a tight-fitting lid. Shake well. Stick a carrot in it to taste. If it’s too oily, add a little more lemon; if it’s too tart, add a little more oil. Shake and taste again. Season with salt & pepper.