Growing up in the suburbs of Baltimore, we had a tradition that was a surprise for most of our guests. After the dinner plates were cleared, we served the final course of the meal. Our guests expected brownies or pie or some other sugar-bomb. But not in our house. In our house, we ate salad.
The salad course served a different purpose in the meal than in a typical American household. Most Americans think of a salad as a way to open a meal, but for us, it’s a light and refreshing finale.
My dad picked up this dining habit as a student in Paris, where he was earning his doctorate in marine biology. Over the course of a decade, he absorbed some of the rules of French dining, which dictate that a salad is served after the main course, but before the cheese plate and sweets.
A typical French salad is made of greens tossed with a light vinaigrette to cleanse the palate. The acids cut through any lingering oils and fats from the main course that coat your mouth, and the fiber-rich leafy greens aid with digestion.
Sure, you can follow this up with cheeses and sweets, but for our family, salad was the dessert. The dressing gave life to a pile of leafy greens, serving as a light and refreshing cap to our meal.
Homemade dressing is so easy to make, too, and a simple one goes a long way: Lemon juice and a dash of vinegar add acidity, while the mustard lends richness and, more importantly, helps the dressing emulsify. Adding nutritional yeast makes everything even creamier and holds the other ingredients together.
It’s a food-science masterpiece.
What I love most about this dressing is that you can toss it on whatever’s in season—spinach or endives in the winter, avocados in the spring, tomatoes in the summer.
It’s also very easy to alter. Try adding different spices, herbs, citruses, salts, or ground peppercorns. When it comes to spicing up my salad dressing, I love to use black lime or cured sumac for a savory, citrusy zing; smoked paprika for an unexpectedly wonderful smoky flavor; or ground garlic or ginger for a tinge of warm sweetness.
Prep time: 2 minutes
Makes: 4 side salads
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar (apple cider works, too)
1 teaspoon mustard (Dijon or whole-grain are my favorites)
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon nutritional yeast
1 pinch your favorite spices (such as black lime, sumac, garlic powder, ground ginger, and smoked paprika)
Your favorite salad greens, chopped vegetables, nuts, cheeses, and grains
1. Add all ingredients into a glass or small bowl. Use a fork to vigorously mix until ingredients are well incorporated and the mixture is a uniform, creamy consistency. (Another option is to put all the ingredients in a jar with a lid and shake it like a Polaroid.)
2. Tip: Dress the salad right before serving and give it a light toss with tongs. If you have heavier components in your salad (tomatoes, nuts, cheese, grains), then dress the greens first, toss, then add the toppings. Otherwise, all of those toppings will end up at the bottom of your bowl.