How to Dress a Salad, Italian-Style

INSALATA E OLIO

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As much as I love America, there is one thing food-wise, that I haven’t gotten used to in almost twenty years: salad dressings! Besides the fact that most store-bought dressings include a lot of processed ingredients, I find that most of these concoctions (even when home-made) combine so many different flavors that they hide, rather than enhance, that of the salad itself. Another issue is texture: most dressings are so thick that, rather than enveloping the leaves, they sit on them.  In Italy, we dress salads very simply with oil and vinegar, or oil and lemon,and in some cases just oil and salt, in a similar way to the French.  The proportions are simple: one part of vinegar or lemon to 4 of oil for a milder dressing, or one part of vinegar or lemon to 3 parts of oil (and some salt) if you like tart flavors. Most Italians don’t actually measure, but you should calculate about 1 1/2 to 2 tablespoons oil per person, or just 1 if you are on a diet. Skipping oil altogether and going fat-free is not as healthy as it sounds, because some of the vitamins in vegetables are lipo-soluble and can only be absorbed when accompanied by a fat. Choosea nice extra-virgin olive oil, and not the cheaper, “light” varieties. As for vinegar, balsamic is very popular these days, but its complex flavor works only with very flavorful vegetables and can be overpowering on simpler types of lettuce. Simple white or red wine vinegar is much more versatile, as is lemon juice. Other great options are apple cider vinegar, and rice vinegar.  I must confess that most of us don’t even bother to blend the ingredients for our everyday meal. Right before eating the salad, we just sprinkle with salt, and pour some oil and then vinegar straight from their bottles. But this is not necessarily the best method, and you should blend the ingredients first for a better result.Everybody knows that vinegar and oil do not emulsify well and tend to separate. The best way to combine them, reducing them into micro-droplets, is in a blender. Honestly, I only do this if I have guests. For everyday, I just put the salt in a stainless or glass bowl, add the vinegar or lemon (do not add the salt after the oil, or it won’t dissolve), and combine well with a whisk or simply a fork. Gradually add the oil, whisking well, and use immediately to dress a salad. The ingredients should be at room temperature, and never cold, or they won’t blend well. Remember that you should never dress salads in advance, except for very “resistant” vegetables such as cucumber or radicchio – delicate salad leaves tend to react to vinaigrette and wither. Sometimes, when I want my salad to be really special, or if I need to plate it for a picture, I add a touch of honey to the dressing: honey stabilizes the emulsion for a long time,  so that the oil and vinegar will not separate all over the plate.If you do use your blender and add honey, it’s actually best to let the vinaigrette rest for a few minutes or even an hour before using it, so that all the flavors can meld; but don’t refrigerate it!Last, but not least: even if you are using bagged salad, always rinse it first – not only because… you never know!!! but also because if the salad is too dry you will end up using way to much dressing.

Buon appetito, and let me know how it goes!