The Magic of a Dressing

I was lucky, growing up, that my mom served a salad with just about every dinner. Those were the days of iceberg lettuce, with a few tomato slices or carrot pieces thrown in. Mom wanted us to be civilized people, and learn to use oil and vinegar, but we rebelled against that. So, like all the kids on my block, we put out three or four bottled dressing from the store every night, and each doused our greens with twice as much Thousand Island or French as we needed. Mom tried to introduce us to the simple joys of vinaigrette, but we were sold on the sweet, creamy stuff.

It was many years before I realized that simple, homemade dressings were wonderful and easy to make. But the big shift came when I learned that simple oil and vinegar dressings are really simple sauces, just light and tangy toppers for all kinds of foods, hot or cold.

What makes dressings different from other sauces? Have you ever wondered why they are such wonderful enhancements to cold salads, composed of vegetables, grains, or just about anything? One reason is that they are usually braced by the sourness of vinegar or citrus, to bring out the fresh flavors of the salad. But the very same shot of tangy flavor works as well in warm preparations as it does with cold, and bestows its magic far beyond the simple bowl of greens. Asian cuisines exemplify this best, with their sweet-and –sour flavor combinations.

If you want to add some zip to dinner, try drizzling tasty dressings on unexpected foods. Fish is often served with lemon because that sour note makes the sweetness in a good piece of seafood more prominent in your mouth. The same thing happens if you pour a little tangy, flavorful vinaigrette on a filet or some shrimp. Chicken breasts and pork happily take on a tasty dressing as a marinade, or drizzled on after cooking as a sauce. Tofu and tempeh are almost always marinated in something, so why not use a favorite dressing?

Where these easy to make mini-sauces really shine, though, is on vegetables. I’ve discovered that plain steamed broccoli, green beans, beets, you name it, tossed with a vinaigrette and eaten hot, or chilled to really marinate, are revelatory. Potatoes, sweet potatoes, even seared mushrooms take on a whole new dimension with a toss in the pan to coat with zippy dressing.

The thing to remember is to balance your dressing-adorned dish with the other components of the meal. A tangy fish or meat would go better with a savory pilaf or not too-busy mashed potato dish. A pile of ginger-miso broccoli goes perfectly with a simple soy sauce seasoned meaty stir-fry. Tangy Dijon Green Beans bring out the richness in a creamy soup or a cheese-adorned entrée.

I wish I had listened to Mom, all those years ago, and learned to appreciate my salad and my dressing in a Continental fashion. At least now I know how easy it is to whip up dressings and how they make the simplest of salads, sides and meats really shine. Just by changing the dressing I use, I can completely transform the old or the "so-so" into something fabulous.  While making a dressing is quick, in a time pinch, there are plenty of good bottled dressings available.

So, if you haven't discovered the magic of dressings already, don't wait like I did. Live it up, and break out the dressings out more often. You’ll add zest to life!

Check out these delicious salad dressing recipes.