Monday, April 5, 2010
From time to time, I get asked to teach people how to cook. The request usually comes from close friends and typically right after I’ve spent 10 minutes expounding on how anyone who hates anchovies hasn’t tried Spanish anchovies packed in salt or some other obscure topic, in other words, making it abundantly clear that I spend way too much time thinking about food. I am hugely flattered when people ask because I love to share what I know and help people discover how easy it can be to cook at home.
When my friend Meghan asked me to help her learn how to cook to “keep her from starving” (her words, not mine), I immediately suggested we make some of the basics I think every cook should know: how to properly cook a chicken breast, a good bolognese sauce and a salad dressing made from scratch.
Meghan quickly made it clear that she didn’t understand why she needed to know how to make a salad dressing when she can just buy one at the store. I suppose she’s right and I think most of us will get along just fine never knowing how to make our own salad dressings, but I am of the belief that the five minutes or less that it actually takes to make a salad dressing is time very well spent.
When making a salad dressing, a very basic formula to follow is three parts oil to one part vinegar with a little salt and pepper and any additional flavorings you want to throw in. It’s easy to remember, easy to make and will elevate any simple salad you throw together to something just a bit more special.
I try to keep vases of fresh herbs on my kitchen counter. They’re beautiful to look at and having them out encourages me to use them more in my cooking – most often they end up as the ‘additional flavorings’ in my herbed salad dressing that I make almost weekly, or as soon as my last batch is gone (I make three or four times what I need for one salad and keep the extra on hand for use throughout the week).
I intentionally didn’t specify which herbs to use in the recipe below. You should use whatever you have on hand, or if you’re going shopping, whichever herbs sound best to you. My favorite combinations include chive and basil (one bunch of chives and the leaves from four or five basil stems) and scallion, parsley and mint (two thinly sliced scallions combined with a handful of chopped parsley and a few mint leaves). Tarragon also works brilliantly in salad dressings. The key here is to try your own flavor combinations and determine what you like best.
This recipe calls for the best extra virgin olive oil you can afford. Sometimes that means the $6 jumbo bottle from the grocery store. Please know that that is perfectly acceptable here. Since the recipe calls for a good amount of olive oil, I tend not to use my $30 bottle of olive oil because that’s a lot of money going into one salad dressing. That being said, if I could afford to buy a countless supply of $30 olive oil, I would definitely use it in salad dressings because the flavor is so prominent and the quality really does come through. So, use the best you can afford, whatever that may be.
Herbed Salad Dressing
Makes about 1 ¼ cups
¾ cup extra virgin olive oil (the best you can afford)
¼ cup champagne vinegar
2 T dijon mustard
½ cup chopped herbs
Salt and pepper to taste
Pinch of sugar
Combine the vinegar, mustard and herbs in a mason jar, screw the lid on and shake to combine. Pour the olive oil in and shake vigorously to emulsify. Season to taste with salt and pepper. If the dressing still has too much of a vinegar bite, add a pinch of sugar to help balance it out. This dressing will keep for about a week in the fridge.