Tuesday, January 19, 2010

How to Dress a Salad

When people are switching over to a more traditional or healthful diet the how-to of salad dressing almost always comes up. Commerical salad dressing is usually a nasty brew of polyunsaturated oils, high fructose corn syrup, artificial flavors, gums and starches. For some people switching to a healthier diet they are the first thing to get tossed out of the fridge. For others they can be the last. Healthy, homemade salad dressing SHOULD be easy, right? It's just oil, vinegar and seasonigns, what can be so hard? I can hear the healthfood wanna be's laughing now.

I had the hardest time with salad dressing until just recently. It was always too oily, or too vinegary, or too salty, or not salty enough. Then I discovered an old cookbook, snitched from a public library untold years ago, in my mom's basement. The Savory Way, by Deborah Madison, one of the leaders of the Berkeley health food movement in the 1960s and 70s. The book is vegetarian and elegant, but homely too. These are the kinds of foods someone who has spent years perfecting their sense of flavors and textures makes at the end of a cocktail party, or for her own Sunday afternoon supper. Flipping through the book makes me long to live next door to her, to have the luxury of dropping in for a bowl of this or a nibble of that. Generally simple, but perfectly composed, her salads are a highlight of the book.

In one of the salad dressing recipes she mentioned her trick to perfect sald dressings - a simple ratio. She uses a ratio of 3:2, oil to acid for all of her dressings with adjustments in ingredients and additions, but not that base ratio. Three to two is almost identical to 5:3 but using that ratio allows you to mix and match your oils and acids in even more variations. A ratio also allows you to make various quantities ranging from a quarter cup of dressing for dinner for two to a quart of dressing to keep in the fridge to have on hand. Simply adjust your measuring tool. I often use tablespoons or teaspoons when making dressing for one or two, but quarter cups would make a family sized batch.

A few words about ingredients before I get into some recipes. One of the reasons we are ditching the commercial salad dressings (aside from cost - they are expensive compared to homemade!) is the polyunsaturated fats. In my post on fats I linked to a couple of articles about the health impacts of polyunsaturated fats - as in, they are really bad for you and you should work towards eliminating them completely - and also talked about the cooking fats I do use in my house. Most healthy fats are solid at room temperature, though, making them unsuitable for salad dresssings.

Olive oil is the classic choice for salad dressings. It is high in monounsaturated fat, a fat that has real health benefits, and low in polyunsaturated fats. Use caution when buying and storing olive oil, though, many olive oils are adulterated with cheaper vegetable oils, and the monounsaturated fatty acids are fragile and thus go rancid more quickly than animal fats. Buy from a reputable source and keep the oil in a cool, dark place.

Sometimes you just don't want your salad to taste like olive oil, though. Sometimes you are going for an asian flavor, or your kids balk at the olivey flavor. Check with your olive oil source and see if they have a light or second pressing oil with a more neutral flavor. You can also use some nut or seed oils (sunflower, sesame, walnut, almond, etc) for salad dressing as well. High oleic sunflower oil is a particularly good choice because it is high in monounsaturated fat and low in polyunsaturated, but it is hard to find. When buying nut or seed oils be sure to read the labels carefully for the levels of polyunsaturated, monounsaturated and saturated fats in the oil. Ideally, you want something with low poly- and higher mono- and saturated. In any case, remember that these seed and nut oils are fragile foods that should be used in strict moderation. Buy small bottles, keep them cool and dark, and don't use them for much of anything except salad dressing. Keep cooking with your good, healthy animal fats.

Here is an example of a simple dressing and a few variations using Deborah Madison's magic ratio. I will use tablespoons for all my measurements because I usually make just enough for one or two meals, but feel free to scale up if you are feeding a crowd.

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Simple Italian Dressing

  • 3 tbs olive oil
  • 2 tbs red wine vinegar
  • 1/2 tsp dijon mustard
  • 1 small garlic clove, pressed
  • goodly pinch of salt and grind of pepper

In a small jar with a lid combine the vinegar, mustard, garlic, salt and pepper. Stir with a fork until well combined. Add the oil, screw on the lid and shake until well incorporated. Taste, on a leaf of lettuce, and adjust salt or vinegar as necessary.

Asian Dressing

3 tbs high oleic sunflower oil or un-toasted sesame oil
1 tbs rice wine vinegar
1 tbs lime juice
1 tsp grated ginger
1/2 tsp grated or pressed garlic
1/2 tsp soy or fish sauce
a few grinds of black pepper
chile flakes, to taste

Combine everything but the oil in a small jar with a lid. Stir to combine and then add the oil. Screw on the lid, shake to combine then taste and adjust as necessary.

Fruity Vinaigrette

1 tbs extra virgin olive oil
2 tbs light olive oil or high oleic sunflower oil
1 tbs fruit infused cider vinegar (raspberry, blueberry, cherry, plum, etc)
1 tbs red wine vinegar
1/2 tsp honey, or to taste
a pinch of garlic powder
a very generous amount of black pepper

Combine everything but the oil in a small jar with a lid and stir well to combine, getting the honey really incorporated into the vinegar. Add the oil, put the lid on, shake to combine and adjust seasoning.

Balsamic Roasted Garlic Dressing

3 tbs olive oil
1 tbs balsamic vinegar
1 tbs white wine vinegar
2 or 3 cloves roasted garlic
1/2 tsp dijon mustard
salt and pepper to taste

Mash the roasted garlic with the mustard and the salt and pepper. Stir in the vinegar until it is well combined then shake it up with the oil.
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The variations here are endless. Add herb, fruit or spice infused vinegars or oils, different fresh or dried herbs, different sweetners or spices. Sometimes I like to use the brine from my home pickled vegetables. Pickled beets make a particularly beautiful and tasty salad dressing. You can stir in grated parmesan, crumbled feta or blue cheese, yogurt or sour cream. The sky is the limit here.

What is your favorite salad dressing? What is your favorite salad recipe? Have you suceeded in copy catting a favorite commercial dressing? Who do you buy your olive oil from?

This post is a part of Real Food Wednesday. Check it out for more real food recipes and stories!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Soup Weather

Around here it's been cold. And wet. And dark. Did I mention wet? And cold? The perfect weather for soup! Every culture has a multitude of soups and for a very good reason. Soup is a cost effective way to get nourishing, warming food into lots of people. Warm food is so important in this cold time of the year. Many doctors and parents are coming to realize the health implications of not keeping our bodies, especially our children's bodies, warm. Being chronically cold can affect growth, attention, and even the course of diseases and infection. And we all know how important keeping those bodies well nourished is.

"But isn't making homemade soup difficult?" people ask. Not if you do a little prep work, keep certain ingredients on hand, and use a little creativity in your soup making. The key to good homemade soup is good homemade stock or broth. Canned stock or broth is just salty water with artificial flavors. It is not healthful or nourishing. Real stock made from bones and meat trimmings is healthful, nourishing, has fantastic flavor and mouthfeel. It does take prep work, but it's all prep work you can do in advance. For information on how to make bone broth check my blog here, my other blog here, Cheeseslave's blog here, or Kelly the Kitchen Kop's blog here. A tasty and relatively healthful vegetarian broth can be created with dried mushrooms or a well chosen assortment of vegetable peelings gently cooked, but check out Cheeseslave and Kelly's blogs for a hundred and one reasons to make bone broth.

Once you've got your bone broth a soup is as simple as sauteeing onions, adding meat and vegetables and adjusting the seasonings. Here is a basic stovetop "chicken" soup recipe with variations.

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Chicken Soup with Variations

*1 yellow onion, chopped into 1/4 inch pieces
*3 ribs of celery, sliced fine
*2 medium carrots, chopped fine
*Coconut oil or other healthy cooking fat
*1-4 cloves of garlic, pressed or sliced
*1/4 tsp ground sage
*1 tsp oregano
*1 tsp ground, dried rosemary
*salt and pepper to taste (really depends on how salty your broth is)
*2 quarts chicken broth or diluted chicken broth
*1-2 cups assorted chopped or frozen vegetables - green beans, zucchini, peas, corn, potatoes, sweet potatoes, etc.
*1-2 cups raw or cooked chicken meat
*1-2 tbs apple cider vinegar

Heat the cooking fat in a 4 quart soup pot and add the onion, celery and carrot. Salt and pepper lightly and stir over medium heat until the vegetables start to soften. Add the dried herbs and continue to cook, stirring occasionally until the onions are translucent. Add the garlic and cook, stirring constantly until fragrant, about 30 seconds.

Add the broth to the pan, scraping up any browned bits and turn the heat to high or medium high. Add the vegetables and meat and let soup come to a boil. Turn heat to low and let simmer until the vegetables are cooked and everything is hot. Taste soup after it comes to a boil (carefully! burned tongues ruin dinners!) and add salt if necessary.

When the vegetables and meat are cooked through taste the soup again for salt, pepper and acidity. Add a tablespoon of vinegar and see if you like the flavor. Add more if you would like, along with more salt and pepper if necessary.

Allow soup to cool slightly and serve with sauerkraut or other pickled vegetables, buttered or cheesy bread, a salad and a homebrew. Er.. or whatever you would like to serve it with. Hehe.

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Variations on this soup are endless. You can adjust the vegetables, the meat, the broth, the cooking fat, the acid and the seasonings. You can add tomatoes or cream. You can strip the soup down to its most basic. Here are a few of my very favorite variations.

Garlic Soup:
Omit everything except onion (reduce to half an onion, chopped very fine), garlic (increase to 6, 8 or 12 cloves, minced or sliced), cooking fat, broth and vinegar. Serve over a toasted slice of hearty bread, with or without cheese, or with a poached egg in a shallow bowl.

Cajun Soup:
Use cajun seasoning instead of the dried herbs (perhaps with some thyme and extra cayenne), omit carrot but increase the celery, and use green beans, peas and sweet potatoes along with chicken or spicy sausage. Serve with sauerkraut and hot pepper sauce.

Taco Soup:
Fry up some ground beef (with organ meat?) with taco seasoning, garlic and onion. Add some tomato, corn and black beans with the chicken broth. Finish with lime juice and serve with sour cream and tortilla chips.

Curry Soup:
Use curry powder instead of the dried herbs, use cauliflower, potatoes and green peas as the vegetables and use lemon or lime juice instead of vinegar. Use virgin coconut oil if you have it.

Bacon and Bean Soup:
Fry bacon first and use bacon grease as your cooking fat. Omit carrots and use drained, cooked pinto or kidney beans instead of the other vegetables. Use the fried, chopped bacon, hot dogs, sausages or no meat and season with a little rapadura, molasses or maple syrup if you'd like. Beef broth is great instead of chicken. Still finish with some vinegar.

Creamy mushroom soup:
Use bacon fat as your cooking fat and add a cup or three of sliced mushrooms in with the onions and celery and cook until the mushrooms have released their water and then gotten dry and browned. Increase garlic if you'd like and use thyme as a main herbal seasoning. Use beef broth if you have it and maybe a splash or wine or brandy. Use red wine vinegar to finish and add sour cream or heavy cream at serving time.

I like to make soup in batches that will provide at least two or three meals at a time because re-heating soup is an easy way to get healthful food on the table fast. You can always freshen up or change the flavor of the soup by sauteeing more onions with seasonings before adding the cold soup and heating it up.

What kind of soup do you like best? How do you work to keep warm, nourishing food on the table during these cold months? Whats your favorite soup garnish or topping?

This post is a part of Real Food Wednesdays. Check out more real food blogs here!

Huge thanks to These Days in French Life, Oz4Caster, Stubborndev and Greygoosie for their beautiful photos! Click on the photos and surf their flickr streams!