Sunday, June 7, 2009

Dressing for Success

So, I've spent all weekend trying to decide if I should write on a certain topic for this blog entry. I waned over the prospect of preaching about what I thought was one of the easiest aspects of a meal to prepare. Then, I had a sort of epiphany; with endless combinations and many faux pas to be made, there was actually quite a bit that needed to be said about one of the most overlooked parts of a meal, the salad. More specifically the garden salad, as opposed to a dessert, pasta, or other non-greens forms of this dish.

Generally, each time I prepare a full meal I include a basic salad in the menu, but I especially love to get creative for the times when the salad actually is the meal. This was the case this past evening when I had some friends from work over for a late dinner. I was told that my cooking had been touted as wonderful(a fact that I cannot refute in good conscience) and that I was not to disappoint. With that in mind, I raided my refrigerator and got to work.

When engineering a salad, getting creative does not mean getting overly complex with your ingredients. The best thing to do is to focus on one aspect of the salad, and pair everything to work with that particular element. I tend to start with the dressing and work out from there. In this case, we're discussing my favorite: Honey Ginger Vinaigrette. It's tart, a little sweet, bold without being overpowering, and it's the perfect match to a well built summer salad.

Now, I don't like to preach (heh heh), but if there is one thing I can impress upon you it is that you should ALWAYS make your own salad dressing. Nothing is going to give you exactly the result that you are looking for unless you make it yourself. Perhaps this makes me a control freak. Perhaps I am okay with this fact. Regardless, it is such a shame to pair together prime ingredients only to serve them with some prefabricated dressing that has been sitting for days on a store shelf. If you'd like to make the dressing that I used in this case, the recipe will follow my rant. Just so everyone knows, I'm not above using bottled dressings, I just don't normally serve them to my guests.

The salad in this case was based on mild field greens (spicy greens like arugula would fight with the dressing.) and baby spinach. To complement the nice bite of the dressing, I picked some nicely ripe strawberries and quartered them. Then I added halved sugar snap peas and candied pecans to top the dish and give a little bit of a crunch. To complete a nice flavor trifecta, I add some (and by some, I never mean a small amount) crumbled Amish blue cheese for a rich finish. When building a salad, keep in mind that the components of the salad should each bring something unique in the taste department to the table, so to speak. If you pair things that each bring the same flavor genre to the salad, it will only confuse your guests palate and leave them unsatisfied. Last, I added some diced grilled chicken breast because this was, after all, the entire meal. Make sure if you're grilling this chicken to either let it cool completely, or wait till the very last minute to add it to the salad, hot meat and cool greens tend to not get along after a short period of time.

This Paired with the Dressing, which is a simple vinaigrette of (about) 1/4c balsamic vinegar (the good stuff), 1/4c of Extra Virgin, a healthy dash of white pepper and kosher salt, about 1/4t of ground horseradish, 2t of Dijon Mustard, 2-3T of Clover Honey, 1T fresh chopped ginger, and 2 cloves of fresh chopped garlic. Now I usually recommend that you mix all ingredients EXCEPT the olive oil about an hour in advance to allow the flavors of the garlic, ginger, and pepper to infuse, then whisk in the olive oil before serving the salad. In keeping with what Shane pointed out in his post, PLAY WITH THE PROPORTIONS! If you like a more tart dressing, use less honey and oil, and add more ginger. Something smoother? Up the garlic and honey. I'm going so far as to say that it is your job as the chef to not just follow a recipe as is if you know that your guests tastes differ from the composition.

Now, I'm not guaranteeing that your guests will not feel gypped when they hear that all you are preparing is a salad. Most people think of salads as boring entities, meant to tide you over and give a cook more time to prepare the main courses. They might ask if they should "bring something" or even say they can't come. Just remember that if there is one thing I can guarantee, it's that with the proper thoughtful attention to detail, they will never doubt your culinary decision again.

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