Whether as a side dish or main entrée, salads are a great way to incorporate vitamin- and fiber-rich fruits and vegetables into your diet.
However, the most expensive part of this garden fresh dish is often the dressing. The good news is that you have the ability to save money and experiment with tastes by making your own dressing — even better, it does not take years of training or culinary education to wow your taste buds and your dining companions.
There are a variety of ways to make vinaigrettes, but the most well-known and classic approach requires emulsion — mixing two unblendable liquids together. Rather than using an emulsifying ingredient like egg yolk, honey, or mustard, many vinaigrettes require you to vigorously mix an oil and an acid base, such as vinegar or citrus juice, being aware that the mixture is inclined to quickly separate. If served in this state, the vinaigrette is called "broken," which is not as bad as it sounds — in fact, some chefs do this on purpose.
The key formula to any successful vinaigrette emulsion is remembering to combine one part acid to three parts fat. Some basic examples of mixtures include balsamic vinegar and olive oil, or lemon juice and walnut oil. Choose ingredients you personally enjoy and that spark your creativity — as long as you follow this recipe, the combination will work every time.
Seasoning your vinaigrette at the beginning of the process is a great way to ensure the taste is consistent with every bite of your salad. I always like to start by pouring my acidic ingredient into a bowl; then, I incorporate a variety of herbs, spices, and extra ingredients before I mix in the oil. Salt and fresh-ground black pepper are standby seasonings, while incorporating fresh thyme, anchovies, or sliced shallots are traditional ways to enhance the flavor. Have fun experimenting with different seasonings — your vinaigrette can be as wild as you want it to be.
Once you have seasoned your acidic ingredient, the next step is to blend in the oil. Long-established techniques normally suggest whisking the acidic mixture vigorously while pouring your oil as slowly and thinly as possible. This works very well and increases the chances of having your dressing stay blended together for a longer period of time. However, I have had great results from combining all the ingredients in a jar and shaking it up, as well as using a blender for a creamier effect.
After all the whisking and blending comes the good part — it is time to taste. A good trick to ensure your vinaigrette's quality is to dip a piece of lettuce or other salad ingredient into the dressing mixture. It sounds simple, but goes a long way in ensuring you have created a pleasant tasting dressing.
So, next time you prepare a salad, try preparing your own dressing as well, which goes a long way in satisfying your tastes and your budget. In fact, if you compare the costs of your homemade vinaigrette with the store-bought varieties, it frequently saves you half the cost. Your own dressing is also fresh and creative, and lets you impress your guests when you tell them it is your original recipe.
Chef Albert DiIeso is the executive chef for Splendido, a resort-style continuing care retirement community in Oro Valley, where he oversees all kitchen operations and menu development for the community's four dining venues. Ask questions at email@example.com.