It’s hard to pick a favorite vegetable, or a favorite growing season, for that matter, but if forced to really ponder the matter, the season I get the most steadfast enjoyment out of is this moment right now: Texas salad season, as I like to think of it. (Talk to me in June and I’ll likely be saying the same thing about tomatoes.)
Lettuces, bitter bites, tender herbs, frilly greens, hearty kales: all the green things necessary to fill a big bowl and make a salad are in season now, and are a perfect foil to the other usual foods I cook during the winter which are warm, heavy, and rich. Salads, for their part, can be as simple as fresh leaves tossed with olive oil, lemon, and salt, or as complex and composed as a plate of roasted roots, shaved carrots, crunchy nuts, homemade croutons, and a creamy dressing.
And that brings us to today’s post: salad dressings. During salad season, I may have 1 or 2 emergency-use, store-bought salad dressings waiting in my refrigerator door, but most often, I’m making my own salad dressing… which honestly sounds more righteous than it actually is. In my house, most store-bought salad dressings usually sits idle in the fridge door, and half of the time I’m questioning their expiration. Or I worry they’ll ruin my locally grown, freshly-harvested greens, robbing them of the attention they’re due. Like anything else I cook, it often just feels right (and simpler, and more economical, and tastier) to make whatever sauce I want coating my leaves or veggies. Most of the ingredients I use to make different salad dressings are usually in my kitchen, anyway. They're likely in yours, too.
New to making your own salad dressings? The variations are endless, but below are two dressings that should carry you through the season and coat your tender Vrdnt greens and crunchy Vrdnt slaws. The two dressing-types below are the ones I most often make at home, hence the garrulous endorsement.
If you happen to have a copy of Samin Nosrat’s acclaimed cookbook Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, turn to page 238 and take a look at her Salad Axis where she gives some wonderful examples and guidance on pairing different salad combos with different dressing types. Her pages on salad dressings were a launch point for this post, and if you don’t already have this book, you should get yourself a copy; it’s truly a wonderful resource to learn to cook delicious, simple food from a CSA share. The main salad dressing takeaway? “The most important thing about any dressing is to strike a proper balance of Salt, Fat, and Acid. Get that right, and any salad will taste good.” Also, don’t swamp the tenderest of greens with heavy dressing. Another good tip: macerate your onions/shallots before using in a dressing or as a salad component. And perhaps my favorite reminder and one that I wholeheartedly adopted after reading it, is: “For composed salads, always make sure that every element is seasoned and dressed.” What this often looks like for me is seasoning and tasting a vegetable in the bowl or cutting board where it sits, before marrying it with a bunch of greens or other ingredients (that also come to the party dressed up). If I batch-roast beets or carrots or kohlrabi at the beginning of the week, for example, I make sure these live in my fridge in a simple dressing of olive oil and lemon juice, salt and pepper, at least; having these ready-to-go, seasoned ingredients makes for quick (and tasty) salad assembly later in the week. A simple dressing/marinade of lemon juice and olive oil will happily complement just about any salad dressing you can come up with.
Without anymore rambling (actually, there is more), here are the dressing directions that I often travel down during Texas salad season. One is a light and bright vinaigrette, the other a creamy-miso situation.
The recipe below (scroll to end) has both honey and mustard in the mix, but calling it “Honey Mustard” makes it sound like something that is thick and goopy, artificially sweet, and better reserved for chicken fingers than frilly fronds. But my favorite vinaigrettes usually involve a quick squeeze of Dijon (adds complexity! And zing!) as well as honey (or any other sweetener you have on hand). The trick here is to make sure your fat (olive oil) and acid (lemon juice or vinegar) are sufficiently combined…the molecules not actually joined, but instead suspended in an evenly distributed emulsion. Just whisk like hell or shake in a mason jar to achieve a proper emulsion. This will help the dressing take on a luxurious quality, happily sticking to any dry salad greens it comes in contact with. (Remember, the best salads are always made with very dry greens! Oil-based dressings will slip off any water-coated leaves. If you’re a CSA member or backyard gardener, a salad spinner is worth the cabinet space.)
Seriously, master 1 basic vinaigrette recipe (maybe scribble the ratios on a post it note for the fridge?) and you will thrive this salad season like you never thought possible. There are endless variations possible: change up the acid - any citrus juice or type of vinegar will do, add fresh herbs, minced garlic or ginger, or toggle with the sweetness scale. Grate a heap of fresh parmesan and gently stir into your emulsified vinaigrette, an awesome dressing to massage into finely chopped kale or collards. Once you master the idea, you’ll be able to whip up a vinaigrette without actual measurements and will be able to eyeball (and taste-for) the exact amount of oil and acid you need to make the dressing… maybe mixing in the serving bowl itself before adding the other ingredients - saving yourself a dish to wash and impressing your friends.
And in case you were wondering, what your favorite vinegar says about you.
*Very much an aside:(I just had an idea. Next time I’m in a doodly mood, I’ll make a vinaigrette postcard for you to slap on your fridge. Enter your mailing address here if you want a copy. I love snail mail!)*
A MISO-BASED DRESSING
Years ago, in 2017, actually, I was turned onto miso-based dressings by a farm-friend named Sarah. Like the sentimental collector that I am, I have a screenshot of the OG text exchange. Though I’ve fallen out of touch with Sarah (do you live in the desert now, sweet friend?), I’ve never forgotten the farro and roasted veggie salad she made for a weekend campout that was covered with a miso-based dressing. Miso, a Japanese ingredient made of a fermented grain (soy, barley, or rice), lasts just about forever in your fridge and is an awesome umami-punch perfect for a CSA, vegetable-heavy pantry. If ever I’m cooking something (tomato sauce, soup, salad dressing) that I feel like needs some ‘umph’, a spoonful of miso will often do the trick. There are many types of miso, but for salad dressings I mostly use white, or shiro, miso.
Like the vinaigrette recipe, master this dressing and then play with variations. As an ode to the first-ever miso dressing I ever fell deeply in love with, I usually use maple syrup as a sweetener, but whenever I’m out of maple, I sub white sugar or honey without much thought. This creamy dressing is perfect both on a mixed bed of greens, as well as on salads composed of heartier veggies: thinly sliced carrots and cabbage, sliced dino kale and radishes, or roasted beets and fennel. Scroll to the bottom for the recipe.
If I had to add one more dressing to this list of must-know-basics, it would be a mayo (or aioli, if you must)-based dressing. This creamy foundation can take you in the directions of Cesar or green goddess dressing, both of which work really well dolloped on a mound of roasted vegetables (that’s a salad, right?) or a bed of crisp romaine. Or a hunk of iceberg... wedge salad, anyone? Yes, homemade aioli is delicious, and is not that hard to make. But for whatever reason, it’s not something I find myself regularly making. When the craving for a creamy-ish dressing hits, what I often do, however, is this: in a big stainless bowl, add to a hefty scoop of Hellman’s, a good glug of olive oil, red wine vinegar or lemon, salt, and freshly cracked black pepper. Got blue cheese or feta laying around? Mix that in, too. Grated garlic? Why not. This quick mayo-olive oil salad dressing is a pretty regular occurrence at our house which is used for more than just coleslaw, and is modeled off of the way I watched my dad make salads growing up. I distinctly remember being a preteen and standing in my dad’s alley kitchen, feigning disgust at the mayo-on-lettuce situation that was happening… only to devour the bowl 10 minutes later. Still shackled by childish insecurities, I’m strangely hesitant to admit that I often dress my beautiful locally-grown greens with a store-bought mayo mashup, the admission somehow jeopardizing my ego and desire to inspire you all to culinary greatness, but it’s so true: I love mayo, and am actually not ashamed of it, and really do think that mayo + acid makes a wonderfully quick way to dress up for this Texas salad season. And isn’t culinary greatness just cooking things that taste good to you? Happy salad season, y’all!!
P.s. One more thing. Added to the list of kitchen happenings I’m unnecessarily hesitant to admit: I love these croutons and usually try to keep a few bags on hand when a crouton-heavy-salad-craving hits and I’m without fresh bread to make my own. A salad-first, mentality… perfect is the enemy of the (very) good, if you will. When I do seek out good-bread from my local baker, I usually buy an extra loaf reserved for crouton-purposes only. Homemade croutons (or grilled bread or fried pita) really are an exceptional way to make a salad something special, and they really are so simple to make. I like Samin’s suggestion to cut, then tear, your bread for croutons, which gives you even more surface area for soaking up olive oil and salt. But for all the other times, the bagged, store bought crouton does the trick. Protip? Toss your salad with the notably ~dry~ bagged-variety a few minutes before you’re ready to eat and let ‘em soak up your delicious homemade dressing a bit. Less likely to cut the roof of your mouth, that way :). Phewf, wonder what else I need to get off my chest.
The Light n’ Bright Vinaigrette Route:
Adapted from Samin Nosrat’s Red Wine Vinaigrette Recipe in Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat
1 tablespoon finely diced shallot
2 tablespoons lemon juice or red wine vinegar
6 tablespoons olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon Dijon
1 ½ teaspoon honey
Maybe 1 garlic clove, grated, if you’ve got it.
Begin by letting the diced shallots sit in the lemon juice or vinegar for about 15 minutes to macerate. Then, combine the other ingredients and shake in a jar or whisk in a bowl to combine.
Real talk: I don’t often have shallots at my house. If you’re like me, just carry on combining the other ingredients (including the acid) without the shallots to yield a perfectly delightful and versatile vinaigrette. Keeps in the fridge, in a sealed jar, for about a week.
The Creamy-Miso Route:
Adapted from this recipe by Sylvia Fountaine
1/4 cup olive oil
3 tablespoons sesame oil (no sesame? Just use more olive oil.)
3 tablespoons rice vinegar or lemon juice
3 tablespoons maple syrup
2 tablespoons white miso paste
2 tablespoons water
1 small garlic clove, grated
2 teaspoons fresh ginger, grated
Salt to taste (at least 1 teaspoon; likely a bit more! Taste, and adjust.)
Choose your own adventure: shake in a mason jar, or whisk in a bowl. Keeps in a sealed jar, in the fridge, for about a week.