By Ruth Silverman, Managing Editor
Who doesn’t love a big, crisp salad? Whatever your pleasure when it comes to dressings, nothing’s better than a bowl of crunchy lettuce and salad veggies to balance out a savory meal. And if you’re on a diet, filling up on salad with lower-calorie dressings is a great tip.
When I was growing up, my BFF’s mom made the best “diet” dressing by leaving a bit of water clinging to the lettuce leaves and then giving the bowl a liberal shake of a popular seasoning called Accent. Later we realized that Accent was actually monosodium glutamate, a.k.a. MSG, an often-reviled flavor enhancer that’s used, famously, in Chinese food as well as many canned and prepared products. No wonder Mrs. W’s salad’s tasted so good!
Accent, which, as its maker claims, “Wakes Up Food Flavor!” is still on the market; however, my efforts at making dressing have evolved considerably. The secret ingredient in my Herbal Dynamite Vinaigrette is not salt but caraway seeds, which add a different zing and work well with the red wine vinegar. The recipe is also a bit heavier on the vinegar than you’ll see in many others.
With extra-virgin olive oil, a.k.a. everybody’s favorite healthy fat, as its main ingredient, the dressing is by definition not low calorie. The calorie-lowering tip here is to shake well but pour with a light hand. A little goes a long way with oil-based dressings if you toss well.
Use any lettuces you like—Romaine, butter, spring mix—or mix them. Lettuce has come a long way since we were scarfing down Mrs. W’s secret dressing on iceberg, and prewashed packages have made it possible to toss a salad like the Barefoot Contessa without too much prep work. I like a good crunch, so I tend to include Romaine. At a recent barbecue I went crazy, mixing two combos from my local Bristol Farms (a high-end Southern California market) that added some bitter notes to the traditional crunchy and sweet of the lettuce. With red and green butter lettuce, mini Romaine, arugula and lots of radicchio in the bowl, I didn’t need much else. Thin-sliced cucumbers, grape tomatoes, and sliced green onions kept the final result very simple.
One caution about packaged lettuces: not all brands are created equal. With some you can detect the taste of whatever they were washed in—at least I can—so I’m picky. Trader Joe’s on the lower end of the price spread is very reliable.
Herbal Dynamite Vinaigrette
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon red wine vinegar
1 medium clove garlic, minced
1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano or 1 teaspoon dried
1/2 tablespoon chopped fresh basil or 1/2 teaspoon dried
1/2 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme or 1/2 teaspoon dried
1/4 teaspoon chopped fresh dill or 1/8 teaspoon dried
1/8 teaspoon caraway seeds or to taste
1/8 teaspoon ground white pepper or to taste
Sea salt to taste
Pour a quarter cup of extra-virgin olive oil into a small jar, and add red wine vinegar until the vinegar floating at the top is about one-third the area of the oil. Don’t overestimate. You can always add more. Add the garlic and the rest of the herbs and spices, cover the jar, and shake well. When you open the jar, the heady aroma escaping will blast your senses. Make the dressing ahead, and store at room temperature for a short period or in the refrigerator. Bring to room temperature, correct the seasonings, and toss that salad!
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