Best-Dressed Salads

Simple, homemade dressings enhance flavors in just-picked greens

Just picked lettuceA great salad is just moments away.

My daughter, Molly, is home from college for spring break. She is determined to learn to cook. After two years of dining room food and microwave noodles, real food suddenly has appeal. She wants to combine this knowledge with starting a garden, so we begin with the basics: salad dressing.

Bottled dressing is not an option in my kitchen. Homemade dressing is a family tradition that goes back to my grandmother, handed down through my mother, and now to my daughter. I serve a green salad every night, tossed in a wooden salad bowl with oil and vinegar, the way I was taught. My recipe follows the classic proportions: three parts oil, one part vinegar. With that as a foundation, I adapt the recipe, depending on the type of lettuce and the piquancy of the greens.

If the leaves are soft and buttery, I use lemon instead of vinegar to mix with olive oil. A crisp romaine deserves bold flavors, such as balsamic vinegar and Dijon mustard. Spicy or bitter mixed greens benefit from something sweet – such as maple syrup — to tame the bite. A well-made dressing can transform almost any type of greens.

I've always been fascinated with the interplay of flavor and texture, but Molly is in no mood for a long discussion: "Just tell me how to make it," She says.

So I emphasize that the key is to enhance the flavors in the greens, which can be subtle. Don't smother them with dressing. To ensure that she has options for all types of greens, I provide a repertoire of recipes, below.

Here's to the continuation of a family tradition.

Homemade salad dressing

Lemon-Tahini Dressing

Makes a half cup

Lemon is the perfect match to sorrel, spring lettuce, cress and aromatic herbs.

  • 1 clove garlic, peeled, mashed and finely chopped
  • 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice (2 lemons)
  • 1 tablespoon tahini
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

In a small bowl (or jar with a lid), combine garlic, lemon juice, tahini, honey and oil. Stir with a spoon (or shake in the jar) until blended. At first, it will look like the ingredients will not blend. But it will emulsify! Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Roasted Garlic Dressing

Makes a half cup

The sweet flavor of roasted garlic complements a salad of mixed mustards, kale, baby bok choy and other strong-flavored greens.

  • 1 large head of garlic
  • 3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar or red wine vinegar
  • 1 lime, juiced
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Set the oven at 400 degrees. Without peeling the garlic, drizzle with a tablespoon of olive oil and wrap the head in foil and place it on a baking dish on the middle oven rack. Bake for 35 minutes or until the clove is tender when pinched. Unwrap the foil and let the garlic rest until it is cool enough to handle. Using a kitchen shears, snip off the pointed tops of the garlic heads. Hold the head upside down over a bowl, and squeeze the cloves so that the soft pulp falls into the bowl. Blend with the remaining ingredients; stir until smooth.

Hot Balsamic Vinaigrette

Makes a half cup

Pair with curly endive, kale, spinach; the warm dressing will tenderize these sturdy greens.

  • 1 shallot, finely chopped
  • 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
  • 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

In a small saucepan over low heat, combine the shallot, vinegar, oil and salt and pepper. Heat the mixture until it begins to bubble at the edges. With a whisk, stir thoroughly to emulsify.

Maple Balsamic Dressing

Makes a half cup

This is my go-to recipe for early spring greens and summer mesclun.

  • 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • 1 large garlic clove, minced
  • 2 tablespoons maple syrup
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon fresh basil, chopped fine
  • 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

In a small bowl, combine mustard, garlic, maple syrup, lemon juice, vinegar and basil. Add olive oil slowly, using a whisk to emulsify. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Creamy Horseradish Dressing

Makes a half cup

This creamy dressing will sweeten bitter greens, such as watercress and endive, mixed with lettuce and mesclun. You can even add a few wild dandelion greens. For a more substantial salad, add flaked smoked trout.

  • 2 tablespoons prepared horseradish
  • 1/2 cup creme fraîche
  • 1/3 cup mixed fresh herbs: chives, dill and flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
  • 4 scallions, finely chopped
  • 1 tablespoons capers
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Combine the horseradish, creme fraiche, chopped herbs. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Just before serving, dot with scallions and capers.

Ellen in the gardenAs the season progresses, Ellen sows more seeds to ensure a continuous crop of greens.

Last updated: 06/26/2023