WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 9: Butter Lettuce With Shallot Vinaigrette photographed in Washington, DC on October 9, 2018. (Photo by Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post via Getty Images; food styling by Lisa Cherkasky for The Washington Post via Getty Images).
Eating In

Dressing for dinner

On the salad course

My son tells me the truth about salad. He orders it in restaurants, where I scorn it as a poor test of cuisine. He eats it in French and Italian houses, where I am a rare guest. So, when he criticises my habit of sloshing vast amounts of dressing over raw vegetables — and even cooked ones, which I often take on their own as a separate course after a dish of meat so as to keep the flavours distinct and respect a custom I have known in Spain since childhood — he knows what he is talking about.

He sloshes with similar profligacy, he admits, but is aware that when he does so he is the victim of nature or nurture, for over-indulgence in oil and vinegar is a Spanish vice. He quotes an Italian friend: “We just let the dressing kiss the salad.”
Still, I persist. If the dressing is good — and it´s often better than the mere lettuce or cucumber it covers — I like to drench what is dreary and to have leftovers to mop up with bread.

What to put in the dressing is a more elusive problem. “Salad” just means “salted” and a pinch is all that truly fresh vegetables need. But conventional salad ingredients — including lettuce, cucumber and tomato — rapidly lose flavour and structure. When they start to wilt or sag, the English rightly call them sad. Dressing cheers them up, as new frocks and shoes dispel disappointment and brighten the glum. But just as clothes must suit their wearers, so the ingredients of salad dressing have to match the characteristics of the vegetables they coat.

Making the match is hard, partly because of the popularity of promiscuously “mixed salad”, for which some kind of vinaigrette is an almost inevitable compromise with perfection, and partly because dressing, like clothing, inspires wildly conflicting tastes.

Here in the United States, where I spend at least half of every year and where “choice” is a magic word, exacerbating consumerism and even hallowing evil, it takes yards of a grocer´s shelves to display the bewildering variety of patent dressings that respond to individual cravings for self-differentiation. We have, I reckon, more commercial salad dressings in America than cheeses in France or political parties in Spain. And when people make versions for themselves they multiply the variety.

All, however, are classifiable in four kinds. First, there are emulsions that are liquid (or slightly viscous), such as one gets by mixing olive oil with vinegar or lemon juice. Others are creamy, such as mayonnaise and its cognates, while a third class involves a single deliquescent ingredient — yoghurt, say, curd, or crême fraiche, into which modifiers, which may include herbs, seeds, nuts, fruits or chopped vegetables — are stirred. In dressings of the fourth type, sprinklings typically of herbs and alliums enhance acidic or oleaginous liquid.

Creamy dressings complement the crunch of raw celery, carrot, cauliflower and radish. Liquid kinds, if suitably strong in flavour, perk up dull leaves or insipid cucurbits and mask the water that cucumbers and tomatoes exude. Few leaves — endives or romaine hearts, for instance — are robust enough for a creamy dressing. Aioli offsets carrots, sweetness; scattered sesame and splashed anise in yoghurt suit celery. Avocados, naturally oily, want only a squeeze of lime juice and a pinch of salt. Some combinations defy predictions: I like a salad of black olives, onions and oranges; mayonnaise would ruin it.

Some dressings are good for nothing, like the abomination called “salad cream” that I recall from prep school in England: it was a kind of fool´s mayo, in which water and vinegar replaced olive oil. In the US the best-selling substitute is “Ranch dressing” — originally a proprietary name, but now lawfully applied to a vast number of regrettable concoctions, home-made or mass-produced, that seem to vie for nastiness.

Its inventor, Steve Henson, a retired plumber, made a fortune in California in the 1950s by selling sachets of a secret blend of powdered herbs to mix with buttermilk or mayonnaise. It is impossible to say how far his invention resembled the currently competing recipes, which call for blends of variously soured creams and medleys of garlic and onion powder, mustard, and almost every condiment known to taxonomy. By the law of averages there must, I suppose, be a palatable version, but I have given up trying to find one.

Cooking, like all art, needs discipline to restrain the imagination from splurging the canvas with mess. I wish the plumber had stuck to his pipes.

This article is taken from the October 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

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