As tender greens begin to come up at farms and in gardens, it’s smart to prepare yourself with a repertoire of dressings that do them justice. Though the smallest, juiciest lettuces call for little more than a light coating of olive oil and lemon juice, we’ll soon be inundated with firmer heads, curly endives, spicy arugula and succulent leaves of spinach. These substantial greens are fully capable of standing up to more robust textures and flavors and your palate will also welcome the exciting variety. If you have come to rely on bottled salad dressings to enliven pre-bagged greens, I beg you to read on and reconsider.
Fresh, vital greens add a welcome lightness to the warm-weather table, and when the mercury really soars, I’ll often find myself wanting to make them the centerpiece of every meal. I love to incorporate other herbs and vegetables from my garden—and occasionally some cheese, fish, or meat—and the right dressing is what pulls it all together. This can be as simple as a vinaigrette, or a bit more involved, like that addictive carrot-ginger dressing you’ve probably enjoyed at Japanese restaurants. I also like what I refer to as a “relish,” with a drier, chunkier consistency that’s an ideal complement to firm, crunchy leaves of endive or Romaine. As far as tools, a fork and a bowl are all you really need, but a mortar and pestle and a food processor or blender also come in very handy.
Many dressings are a variation on the vinaigrette, whisked together in the right proportions to create a sauce that is emulsified. (That means the fat molecules in the oil are broken down by acid, so you get a smooth, creamy texture that’s ideal for coating the greens.) The right proportions generally hover around four parts oil to one part acid, but you can adjust this to suit your taste. Do it enough and it becomes instinctive—you won’t even have to bother with measurements. Start with a classic French vinaigrette: minced shallot briefly softened in sherry or red wine vinegar, combined with Dijon mustard and olive oil, and seasoned with salt and pepper. I sometimes add an unorthodox pinch of sugar because I think it creates the perfect balance. Always mix the acid with any other ingredients you’re using before whisking in the oil, slowly at first, until the emulsification starts to come together. If this doesn’t happen, you can add a few drops of hot water and whisk away. Or shake it up vigorously in a sealed glass jar and that should do the trick.