Salad Dressing Ramble

lunch table

Patrick mentioned in a recent post to the ELC blog that a part of what makes eating local special is the intensity of the flavors. This upped intensity makes me think of the difference in flavors between processed and fresh foods.

When I look at my experience with food over my lifetime, I have experienced the shift from processed-to-fresh twice. My mother—who grew up making meals for a huge family—described an arc in her cooking along the processed to fresh continuum over the course of my childhood. I can’t remember much canned food, since that period was pretty early, though waxed beans stick in my head. Of course we had Campbell’s soup and that sort of thing for lunches. Garlic was garlic salt, herbs were dried, butter was margarine. Olive oil wasn’t. Gradually more frozen vegetables showed up, instead of canned. Remember, of course, that this was Michigan in the seventies, before cheap gas and the impact of California-cuisine made trucked-in fresh vegetables standard in the winter. Then, increasingly, as her skills became more refined and her palette more sophisticated, we ate all fresh vegetables, fresh herbs, real butter, olive oil. My mom has always credited Julia Child for really opening her eyes culinarily. By the time I was a teenager, my mother was doing catering on the weekends.

So that was the first transition for me. Then I grew up and left home, and, like a good American, rebelled against everything I had learned. I ate processed food like it was going out of style (would that it were!). I regressed and ate spaghettios and franks; I ate things my mom would never serve, like Kraft mac & cheese; I tested out all the frozen “entrees;” and noshed my way through the fast-food chains and midwestern eateries. It wasn’t that I didn’t know how to cook—I started cooking when I was in my early teens at home—it’s that I had decided that cooking wasn’t me.

It was actually not until my early thirties that I really returned to cooking with pleasure and enthusiasm. When I met Patrick he was a fast-learning fledgling culinary adventurer. One of the first meals he made me was an amazing Mexican stew, from Elizabeth Lambert Ortiz, her Pollo con Especias—spiced chicken—to which he had added various vegetables. It was rich and mysterious. I was nervous and wary. Then I was won over by its hearty deliciousness, and by the man who would serve me such wonder, made by his own hands.

Patrick and I embraced cooking (and quite a few pounds) together early in our relationship, exploring various ethnic cuisines—Indian and Mexican being our favorites. Later, on moving to the Bay Area, we were further influenced by the fresh-foods culture of northern California. After reading Fast Food Nation and deciding not to eat fast food or factory-farmed meat any longer we were nudged even further toward the fresh and the home-cooked, as the restaurants we plied in the Bay Area were not, generally, serving sustainably-raised meats. (We still miss the flavors of the amazing Mexican food stands. I am grateful that we experienced them before our “conversion”!)

And so, another arc from processed to fresh, whose end point I have still not discovered. And both times this arc has brought me to a more vivid appreciation for what I taste and ingest. Sometimes “intensity” feels like a term to describe “untutored” as when I experiment with spelt in my bread-baking! As we experiment with some new ingredient or cooking method I am brought to mind of what cooking for a family must have been like before the world’s foodstuffs were at our fingertips at our local stores. Heck, before there really were much in the way of cookbooks to even suggest some interesting variations on the same old salt pork stew or griddle cakes!

All of which brings me to the subject of this post: salad dressing. Yes, folks, all that was an introduction to a discussion of salad dressing.

Patrick and I have developed a certain division of labor in the kitchen. Some things we cook together, but certain things are always made by one or the other of us. Patrick, for example, makes the stocks, and the mayo. I always make the salad dressing.

Salad dressing, vinaigrette, more precisely, is something I learned at my mother’s elbow, starting as her “taster” and becoming the creator. Vinaigrette might just be the iconic food for me in that arc I described from processed to fresh. I have loved salad my whole life (to my mother’s delight), but in my preteen years that meant Wish Bone Italian dressing. I loved that dressing. I can still sharply visualize the little mysterious bits floating in the vinegar layer at the bottom of the bottle, beneath the top level of oil. I remember a driving trip to Toronto—when I was ten, maybe—and learning that they didn’t have Italian dressing in Canada. I know it’s about too Midwest for words, but when I think about it, that symbolized cultural difference to me at the time. So I switched to the local favorite: French dressing—sticky-sweet orange stuff in plastic packets or little plastic cups. I cannot remember the first time my mother served a vinaigrette she made herself—I’ll have to ask about that.

I love salad dressing because it is a thing that I know so well that I feel comfortable experimenting, and it is a generous condiment, easily embracing seasonal or newly-discovered ingredients.

Deb Madison is one of our favorite cookbook authors, as evidenced by our sticky, crinkly, cracked-spine version of Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. I have used and adapted a number of her dressings. One of my current favorite dressings is adapted from her Blue Cheese dressing. This is her recipe:

6T extra virgin olive oil
2T sour cream or yoghurt
5tsp sherry or aged red wine vinegar
3oz blue cheese such as Maytag, crumbled
1T snipped chives
salt & freshly ground black pepper

This evolved to my standard version:
2T sour cream (or yoghurt)
5T olive oil
1T Walnut oil
1T aged balsamic
2T white wine vinegar
1T red wine vinegar
3oz bleu cheese (crumbled)
minced tarragon and thyme

I look at the recipe I just transcribed and think, that’s just the kind of vague recipe that used to drive me nuts! “s&p”! How much salt and pepper?! How much tarragon and thyme? And now I would say, well, it depends on how haggard the tarragon and thyme plants are looking. Sometimes we’ve over-used the poor things and I use less, or scrounge for some other herb, or use none at all. Salt and pepper, yup, to taste. Our favorite blue right now is Rogue Creamery’s, but it definitely needs to be a crumbly blue, and I like a pretty strongly flavored one for this recipe. Deb’s choice of Maytag works well.

A note about assembly: I start with the s&p, sour cream, and vinegar, whisking all to a smooth consistency. Then I whisk in the oils gradually so I get a smooth emulsion. When it is blended to my satisfaction, I ditch the whisk, and mix in the blue cheese with a fork. If you use the whisk for the cheese, it will gather all the blue cheese within its tines and be a pain to clear out.

So, being in charge of salad dressing, when we embarked on the ELC, I was thrown into a mild panic. What was I to do about olive oil, about vinegar? After calming down and exploring a bit, I made my first mostly-local attempt:

2T cider vinegar
2T pear vinegar
2T walnut oil
3T sunflower oil
4T olive oil
2T sour cream
3 oz Rogue Valley Hazelnut smoked bleu cheese
tarragon & thyme

So, first the not local: walnut and olive oils, from California, salt from Utah, and pepper from somewhere far far away.

The cider vinegar is bulk from our co-op, and is probably local, but not for sure. I am using it preferentially, even though we’re not sure, because it could be made locally, as apples are plentiful here, and it seems important to learn to adjust our cooking to favor what can easily be produced in our locale. Someday, someone may develop the skills and experience to make something like aged balsamic here, but that will take a while. Meanwhile, I will learn to work with what we’ve got!

The asian pear vinegar is made by a Portland outfit, Blossom Vinegars, that we found at the farmer’s market. They make fruit and vegatable vinegars. The flavors are young and, yes, intense, but pretty good. We bought the Walla Walla and the Asian Pear varieties.

The sunflower oil is made by a very cool couple, Bruce and Molly, who live about a mile from us. (Their company name is Green Machine Biofuels, and Patrick asked if they did biodiesel. Apparently they had planned to initially, and then decided they didn’t want to go the route of being a fuel company.) When we asked them about where their seed stock came from, Molly said “Oh! What a good question!” and meant it. She knew, too. We got the sunflower seed oil, since it was sourced closer—North Dakota. Their sesame seed came up from Mexico. They have not been able to find a closer provider of seed stock yet. We were pretty excited to find a locally pressed, organic, and domestically-grown oil, though, where the producers could identify the origin of the seed. On top of all that, it’s really good. Pricey, though. $15 for 350 ml. For that reason, we are using it judiciously, blended with less expensive oils.

The sour cream was Nancy’s, made in Eugene by Springfield Creamery. They source their milk from Northwest dairy co-op members, most of whom are within 50 miles of Eugene, which is 100 miles from us—so mostly all the milk should be within our foodshed!

The tarragon and thyme come from our herb garden.

I served this on red leaf from the farmer’s market and roasted oregon hazelnuts. It came out prety well, the blue cheese softened the sharpness of the vinegars, but it was less subtle than I am used to. We had the same batch a couple days later (stays great in the fridge), and it had softened a bit, but it will require some development.

I made a second attempt at local dressing this week, this time to serve on a salad of romaine from our garden. Two heads that we planted in October survived various transplants and frosts and are well-sized for eating now. It was a lunch salad, topped with line-caught canned albacore tuna. The tuna was caught off Santa Cruz, not very local for us, but we bought the can in Oakland, so it was closer then! I crumbled some roasted hazelnuts on top, and served a couple slices of soft sheep’s milk cheese on the side of the plate.

The cheese was a new effort by Willamette Valley Cheese Company, a farmstead cheese maker. They also make a Brindisi we’ve been loving. The soft sheep’s cheese is lovely, and the only sheep cheese in Oregon so far. I really wish we could have sheep. And goats. And pigs.

Ah well, back to the dressing. Ok, this one was actually much more successful and simpler:

2T pear vinegar
2T sunflower oil
2T olive oil
~1t honey

I think the honey was the key. It softened the sharpness of the young vinegar. I also used less vinegar, and avoided the cider vinegar altogether.


I prepare this salad by mixing the dressing with the tuna, and placing the dressed tuna atop the undressed lettuce. Here I served it also with a bit of crunchy walnut toast from a loaf I made last month and froze. A perfect accompaniment, especially with a generous slathering of Noris butter. It made a super yummy and quite hearty lunch. You can read on the ELC blog about another tasty and local lunch we had recently.

Patrick has said that the ELC will surely change our foodways permanently, and I have to agree. I certainly wouldn’t want to learn about all these great local people, and then stop supporting them! It was amazing this weekend to go to the farmer’s market with a grocery list, to know who I was going to buy each item from, and to be greeted warmly and familiarly by all of them. We haven’t been to New Seasons (which is a great grocery store, but a chain, nonetheless) at all this month.

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11 Responses to Salad Dressing Ramble

  1. Scout says:

    Congratulations on the salad dressing. I’m a trained culinary professional, but vinaigrette angers and confuses me constantly. It’s so simple that it becomes complex, and I’m reduced to a doubtful mess whenever I make it. My current recipe is red wine vinegar, grape seed oil, salt, pepper, a pinch of something sweet, and chopped shallot. I love its simple Frenchiness, but my main affection lies in the fact that I rarely screw it up.

  2. Holly says:

    I am often amazed by how badly a viniagrette can go, when it seems like nothing has changed. I sometimes think it senses my mood!

    I have not yet experimented with grape seed oil, and should. I felt zany moving into using walnut, and now sunflower, a little grape seed should be fun. Seems like someone ought to be making grapeseed oil in the Oregon wine country . . . I am making friends with red wine vinegar again, after forsaking it for some time in a torrid romance with red and white balsamics. The key for me with red wine vinegar is always that something sweet. So I have taken to using multiple vinegars, allowing myself the sweetness of the balsamic, with the acid of the red wine.

    Thanks for reading.

  3. mary mcguire says:

    I will try these combinations and I enjoy your photos of good looking food that I want to eat.
    It seems to me that grapeseed oil is a good neutral oil that is often used when flavored with lots of
    herbs; I don’t remember it’s being so full of flavor itself. let us know if you try it. thanks for
    such a good story along with the recipe. that’s always been my favorite part of cook books. mary

  4. Scout says:

    I’m a child of the ’80s, so red wine is my go-to vinegar. I, too, have had brief flings with others,but with the crazed overuse of balsamics today, I tend to shy away from them now. However, I still enjoy a chunk of fresh ciabatta, drizzled lightly with some of that nice, thick, expensive balsamic which someone clearly loved for a long time.

    I started using grapeseed oil because it works just as well as olive oil in recipes, and is occasionally cheaper. My favorites, though, are all the nut oils, with walnut near the top. If you have the chance, try mixing a little pistachio oil into a salad dressing. It’s a little too thick and overwhelming (and expensive!) to use too much, but a little goes a long way.

    And if you find a local source of grapeseed oil, let us all know!

  5. DairyQueen says:

    Wow, my mouth is watering. I am excited to find a good blue-cheese dressing recipe, as I need to branch out from the basic vinaigrette I’ve always made. I’ve enjoyed reading your account of the Eat Local challenge so much. May I ask where you found the canned line-caught tuna in Oakland? I’ve never run across such a thing, and I live here in the ‘hood.
    -Bonnie aka Dairy Queen

  6. Holly says:

    Hey Bonnie,

    Thanks for the nudge on identifying the tuna. I had meant to specify it and then blew it off in my effort to get the post out! But the company is Dave’s Gourmet Albacore. It’s spendy, but good. I think we would buy it at Whole Foods on Telegraph—I don’t know if the Bowl carried it or not.

    We just found your blog. The ELC has been wonderful for identifying so many kindred spirits for us. I loved your Judy’s Eggs post. As a chicken owner, there’s no way you can convince me chickens don’t enjoy their fresh air. Every day I become more and more convinced that “big organic” is an oxymoron.

    Thanks for reading.

  7. Jamie says:

    “…sticky, crinkly, cracked-spine version of Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone.”

    We have a copy of that book that fits that description, too. All the color plates are starting to fall out of the middle! It’s probably in my top five most-used cookbooks of all time.

  8. Mom of Three says:

    I didn’t realize how lucky I was growing up until I heard what other people had eaten as a regular matter of course. To this day, if my mother-in-law cooks it (even on Thanksgiving!) it is from frozen or powdered origins, most generally. Strange low-fat things made from wierd chemicals to mimic high-fat foods. I was a bit shocked because we had been raised in a house with lots of healthy, good foods. Don’t get me wrong, we had our share of Mac and Cheese and I still feed that to my kids today…they love it…but the overwhelming majority of things served in our house come from the lessons learned about what food should be in childhood. With one exception–I gave up meat altogether in 1990. I did this because of reading the Upton Sinclair classic, The Jungle, but passages from Morgan Spurlock’s book and those from Fast Food Nation should inspire anyone today to do the same! That doesn’t mean that we couldn’t lose a few pounds, hubby and I, but the kids are self-regulating and in great shape!

  9. Jennifer says:


    It is 10:30 in the morning and my salad and dressing cravings have shot up! But I’m also wondering about the walnut toast. In the top 5 things I miss the most about Oakland is getting the Acme Walnut Levain (it was ALWAYS in our house). Your walnut toast looks yummy and I’d love the recipe if you’re willing to share.

  10. Holly says:


    My Walnut Bread recipe, like the blue cheese dressing in the post, is from Deb Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone.

    This makes 3 loaves.

    2.5c warm water
    2 1/4t (1 envelope) active dry yeast
    1/4c roasted walnut oil
    1T honey or malt syrup
    1/4c nonfat dry milk
    2t salt
    3-4c whole-wheat flour
    (1c wheat bran if whole-wheat flour is smooth, decrease whole-wheat flour 1c if you add this)
    ~2c all-purpose flour
    1 1/2c chopped walnuts, prefereably blanched and roasted
    melted butter for brushing the tops

    -Stir yeast into 1/4c warm water and set aside to proof while you gather ingredients

    -Put 2 1/4c warm water in mixing bowl and stir in yeast, oil, honey, dry milk, salt
    -Add bran and whole-wheat flour, beat until batter is smooth
    -Add enough white flour to make a heavy dough that pulls away from the sides of the bowl, then add the walnuts
    -Turn out onto counter and knead until smooth, adding more white flour as necessary to keep from sticking
    -Place dough in oiled bowl, turning once to coat, and set aside to rise untiul doubled, about 1 1/2 hours

    -Turn risen dough onto counter and cut into 2 or 3 pieces
    -Shape dough into tight ball with a plump, round shape. Don’t overwork, the nuts tear the dough if you fuss too much.
    -Place rounds on an oiled baking sheet and set aside until doubled again, about 45 minutes

    -Preheat oven to 375°
    -Slash risen loaves with 3 or 4 parallel cuts and brush with melted butter
    -Bake until a rich brown crust is formed, about 40 minutes (says Deb, but mine took an hour plus)


  11. Gwen says:

    I have a very similar pear vinegarette dressing only I use dijon mustard, fresh tyme and a little sugar (no honey at the time) yummy!

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