By Allison St. Claire
If ever there is a time of year with a surfeit of salad makings, it would have to be now. Summer. Prime growing season in most parts of the country. Greens galore. Tender young leaves of baby root vegetables like beets or turnips; lettuces ripening by the bunches; kale, bok choy, and other greens springing from the warm earth, plus a myriad of herbs on the side.
Salads practically make themselves right in your crisper drawer, or in the basket on your way inside from your garden, or home from the farmer’s market or your CSA community farm pick-up site!
But delicious, refreshing and healthy as all those goodies are, naked salad can get pretty boring, if not downright unpalatable to most of us. Homemade salad dressings, made with extra virgin olive oil plus raw vinegar or lemon juice are, as nutrition educator Sally Fallon notes, the best coat that any self-respecting salad can put on. (Her basic recipe below.)
Note the key word here: homemade.
Store-bought dressings, however convenient they may seem, are generally an abomination to anyone seeking healthful foods, and an insult to any self-respecting salad. And, even worse, a fat-free dressing can kill some of the most important nutrients found in a salad, as well as contributing nothing to weight loss. We need fat to help absorb the nutritional goodness of a salad. Vitamins A, D, E, and K are absorbed in the intestinal tract with the help of fat molecules -- which means that having a fat-free salad dressing will actually decrease the bioavailability of these nutrients.
What's a non-fat dressing made from? Mostly water. Additionally, in order to maintain the semblance of an oil-based dressing, emulsifiers and thickeners are added. Just look for example at the ingredient list for Kraft's Fat-Free Italian Dressing: [Note: this could be almost any prepared dressing found on your grocery store shelf. Not to pick on Kraft specifically, it just happens to be a jar a neighbor had handy I could look at.]
Water, vinegar, high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, salt, contains less than 2% of Parmesan cheese (part-skim milk, cheese culture, salt, enzymes), garlic, onion juice, whey, phosphoric acid, xanthan gum, potassium sorbate and calcium disodium EDTA as preservatives, yeast extract, spice, red bell peppers, lemon juice concentrate, garlic, buttermilk, caramel color, sodium phosphate, enzymes, oleoresin paprika.
And the fats in commercial salad dressings? Most likely you’ll get soybean oil. A highly subsidized mono crop, soy beans are almost always genetically modified (not good), and full of pesticides, and rancid from over-processing. But it is cheap. Other similar offenders include canola, safflower, and oils such as peanut , cottonseed and sesame oil which are extremely high in Omega 6 and low in Omega 3. Our optimum ratio of Omega 3 to 6 should ideally be about 4:1. Instead, the modern diet often has us at 1:22 or worse. Some of the health problems associated with Omega 3 deficiency include asthma, heart disease, learning disabilities, and blood clots.
Try instead a simple, inexpensive basic vinaigrette requiring only olive oil, vinegar or lemon juice, salt and pepper, plus a jar, or one fork and small bowl. Start to finish – one minute or less. Olive oil supplies vitamin E and a cornucopia of antioxidants, while both olive oil and raw vinegar provide a wide spectrum of enzymes, right at the start of your meal where they belong.
Four parts oil to one part vinegar (preferably raw) or lemon juice. Or whatever ratio tastes good to you. Americans tend to use 3 to 1; the French 5 to 1. Salt and pepper. It’s your salad – taste and adjust to your tastes. Whisk everything together in a small bowl, or shake vigorously in a small jar. Pour a small amount into a salad bowl, and bathe the salad greens gently in the dressing. If you are using raw kale or other hearty leafy green, start by gently kneading the leaves in the dressing for a couple of minutes to soften them and allow some absorption of the liquid.
Now start improvising: Fresh herbs and garlic, anchovies, cultured cream, raw cheese (or any real cheese of your choice), raw egg yolk (if you have a trusted farm source) and homemade mayonnaise added to dressings all have a contribution to make, both to enzyme and vitamin content and to exciting flavors that whet the appetite and encourage us to eat our salads down to the last bite.
Now, if you like it, add it! Garlic, mustard, balsamic vinegar, cream, honey, miso, tahini...