When it comes to salads, I like to keep the combination of ingredients simple, the flavors fresh, and the dressing light. Keeping these things in mind, a well-executed salad should highlight the flavors of its ingredients rather than mask them. My number one tip for doing this is to make homemade dressing. Hold it. I can almost hear your mouse scrolling across the screen as you frantically search for the little red X to make this whole idea disappear, but read a bit further and at least give me the chance to persuade you otherwise.
I remember the very first time I was presented with the idea of homemade dressing; Home Ec class (6th grade) and my awkward clumsiness was as great as my hair was long (i.e. past the halfway point down my back). My Home Ec teacher gracefully whisked her way to a zesty Ceasar dressing in front of the class and then asked us to replicate her masterpiece. Upon reaching my group’s cooking station, I was already determined to relinquish my title as “leader” to one of my peers who, unlike me, didn’t let the word “emulsify” — or any word for that matter — stand in her way. However, after another read through the recipe, a few deep breaths, and an encouraging “well don’t just stand there” from my tactful peer, I decided that homemade dressing was something I might be able to do. That particular recipe for Ceasar dressing ended up becoming a favorite of mine, and I made it time and time again for my family. So, my last words of persuasion are: if a Home Ec class full of dangerously clumsy sixth-graders can do it, you can do it too.
While I still have yet to try making a creamy dressing from scratch, I can vouch for the simplicity of a homemade vinaigrette. Keep in mind that a vinaigrette is only as good as the olive oil used to make it, so be sure to use high-quality extra virgin olive oil. One of my favorites is My Brother’s Extra Virgin Olive Oil which I found at WhoFoNo a few months back. Keeping the olive oil tip in mind, get emulsifying with a few of my favorites:
1/2 cup high quality olive oil
3-4 tbsp fresh lemon juice (to taste)
1 tbsp minced shallot
1 1/2 tsp dijon mustard
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Whisk all ingredients together in a bowl and season with salt and pepper.
Red Wine Vinaigrette (Giada De Laurentiis’ recipe)
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
3 tbsp fresh lemon juice
2 tsp honey
2 tsp sea salt
freshly ground black pepper
1 cup olive oil
Mix the vinegar, lemon juice, honey, salt, and pepper in a blender. With the machine running, gradually pour in the oil until dressing emulsifies.
Alright, back to the original point of this post: the Spicy Green Salad with Shaved Parmesan, Toasted Pepitas, and Pears. Since it was my first time making it I was a bit nervous to see how it would turn out, but I figured since the ingredients stand alone well, they would likely stand together well. Fortunately my predictions were correct; the salad turned out amazing. The dressing managed to place each of the ingredients on their own glorious pedestals while simultaneously remaining undercover like a seasoned 007 agent. This salad is great for winter parties and will “wow” guests without keeping you in the kitchen for more than 20 minutes. What more can you ask for?
Spicy Green Salad with Shaved Parmesan, Toasted Pepitas, and Pears (Serves 8-10)
Modified from Gourmet
1/3 cup green (hulled) pumpkin seeds (pepitas; unsalted and not toasted)
1/3 cup plus 1 tbsp olive oil; divided
3 tbsp Sherry vinegar
1 tsp mild honey
1 tsp grainy mustard
4 cups packed spicy salad greens, such as arugula, radish greens, or watercress
4 cups packed baby romaine or other mild mixed green
8 oz block Parmesan or Manchego cheese, rind removed and cheese shaved into 32 thin slices
4 small Bartlett pears, sliced into 1/4-inch-thick pieces
1. Cook pepitas in 1 tbsp olive oil in a small heavy skillet over medium-low heat, stirring frequently, until puffed and beginning to brown (approximately 4 minutes). Transfer with a slotted spoon to paper towels and reserve oil. Season seeds with salt and peppers.
2. Whisk together vinegar, honey, mustard, 1/4 tsp salt, and 1/8 tsp pepper. Add remaining 1/3 cup olive oil and reserved oil from skillet in a slow stream, whisking until emulsified.
3. Place greens in a large salad bowl and slowly pour dressing over; toss to coat.
4. Divide greens, pears, and cheese among salad plates. Sprinkle with pepitas and serve immediately. Enjoy!