Monday, March 25, 2013

Dressing It Up

There are a few items that I believe, no matter what your comfort level is with cooking, you can and should master in the kitchen. This is because, given the balance between cost, time, difficulty, and flavor, some foods are best done from scratch.

One of these is salad dressing. I mean no disrespect to the hard working people in the bottled dressing industry, but making salad dressing is as easy as, well, making salad dressing (and so much easier than pie). There is no cooking process at all, and the only equipment you need is a bowl and a fork, or a whisk if you want to get fancy. An infrequent investment in a few key ingredients means you have vinaigrette for months, for a fraction of the price of store-bought dressing and inevitably a tastier product. 

Salad dressing is an emulsion, meaning it’s a balance of two liquids--oil and acid--forced into suspension with each other. But that balance is temporary, and homemade dressing tends to separate if it sits a few minutes. Vinaigrette is just not a food that’s meant last for months in the fridge, and the fact that bottled dressing can maintain an emulsion should make you wonder what kind of chemical stabilizers and preservatives are going into that bottle along with the vinaigrette.

By chucking the premade stuff, you get control over the ingredients. And to make it, all you have to remember is one simple ratio. 3 : 1. That’s the relationship of oil to acid. Add a little salt and pepper and presto, you’ve made dressing. Maybe you want less acid? The ratio is not a rule, it’s a guideline. So play with the ratio, a little at a time, tasting as you go, using a lettuce leaf to sample. 

I make dressings using either canola oil or olive oil. My three favorite acids these days are champagne vinegar, fig balsamic vinegar, and lemon juice. Once you’ve mixed the oil and vinegar, there are a number of simple add ins that can enhance taste and provide variety. You can add some dairy to smooth out the acid, like buttermilk, cream, or sour cream. You can add honey. You can add dry or prepared mustard. Penzey’s carries a number of terrific spice blends to mix into a dressing (my family loves the Buttermilk blend). If you want to get crazy, pull out a knife and mince up a shallot, garlic or chives.

A little dressing goes a long way. Start with 6 tablespoons of oil and 2 tablespoons of acid. That gives you about a 1/2 cup of dressing, plenty for a single salad. And you can use it on other foods beyond salad. Mustard dressings are great on green beans, and a balsamic dressing can be a glaze for a simple chicken breast. If you want a starting point, here’s a creamy mustard number that I make around here at least once a week. 

Creamy Mustard Vinaigrette

3 T. champagne vinegar or white wine vinegar
2 t. Dijon mustard
2 T. sour cream or heavy cream
1/2 cup olive oil (not extra virgin)
salt and pepper to taste

Put vinegar, mustard, and cream in a bowl and stir together. Add olive oil and whisk until combined. 

Taste, using a piece of lettuce, and add salt and pepper. Adjust seasonings, oil or vinegar.

This recipe makes enough for two salads, so you can keep some in the fridge for a few days. Just let it come to room temperature, and whisk again, before using. 

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Granola Goodness

OK, I’m about to let you in on a closely guarded trade secret. Several years ago, a friend shared her homemade granola with me, and it was love at first sight. She in turn had learned it from a friend decades earlier, and when I asked, my friend shared that recipe with me.

Being who I am, I can’t resist messing around with a good recipe in search of the great. After a lot of tweaking, I think I’ve found the perfect combination. I now make it all the time. I give it as a gift to anyone who will have it, and I try to keep some on hand at home at all times. I am happy to eat this granola with Greek yogurt and berries every morning for the rest of my days. (And speaking of Greek yogurt, the yogurt from Sophia’s Greek Pantry is truly the best in these parts).

Bags of small batch granola cost upwards of $8-$10, but you can make the most delicious granola imaginable for a fraction of the price. And it is all too easy to get hooked on this stuff — and I mean this in a good way, since it's filled with whole grains, antioxidants and protein. It’s simple to make, and doesn’t use many ingredients. The key is spreading the granola out in the pans so it can toast evenly, and using low heat so it won’t burn. The granola keeps in the freezer, and this recipe can be easily doubled (although you have to make sure you have the oven space to spread it over four sheet pans or bake it in two rounds). You can substitute various nuts if you want, but really, this is a pretty killer combination. Trust me on this one.

Really Truly The Best Granola Ever 
adapted with gratitude from Judith Liben
makes about 6 cups

3 cups rolled oats
1 cup raw pepitas
1/2 cup raw cashews, roughly chopped
1/2 cup raw almonds, roughly chopped
1 cup dried cherries (preferably unsweetened)

1/2 cup canola oil
1/2 cup honey
1/2 t. vanilla
1/4 t. kosher salt

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Spread parchment paper on two sheet pans.

Place oats, pepitas, and nuts in a large bowl. In a small saucepan, heat the oil, honey, vanilla and salt just until bubbles start to form. Remove from heat and pour over oat mixture. Mix to combine.

Spread mixture on the two pans in a single layer. Place in the oven. In the meantime, rinse out the bowl, dry it, and place the dried fruit in it.

After 12 minutes, remove pans, stir granola around, and rotate pans as you put them back in (unless you have a fabulously even cooking oven). Give the granola another 8-10 minutes, then start checking every few minutes. Total cooking time is about 25-30 minutes, depending on your oven.

When it is a medium golden color, remove from the oven. Pick up the parchment like a sling, and pour granola back into the bowl over the dried fruit. Stir to combine, then let cool on the counter, stirring occasionally.

Store in a zippered bag in the freezer or an airtight container on the counter. Will keep two weeks, or months frozen.