It’s easy to resort to a familiar bottle of salad dressing or just whisk the simplest vinaigrette with oil, vinegar, and Dijon mustard. Nothing wrong with either one, except maybe that they become tiresome, one-note tastes. And bottled dressings typically contain excess sugar, salt, fat, and preservatives, things you can avoid if you make your own.
When dinners are lighter and fresher during the warm months, it’s a good time to experiment and think of dressings as sauces not just for leafy greens, but for grilled or fresh vegetables, grains, pasta, potatoes, fish, chicken, tofu, and sliced meats. You can even take familiar pastes and dips — pesto, chimichurri, romesco, and harissa — and thin them with vinegar, oil, even water, for a piquant dressing. And for almost any combination, the blender may become your new best friend.
At Life Alive Urban Oasis & Organic Cafe, known for vegetable and grain salads, thick and rich dressings are all made in a blender. “We call them sauces,” says founder Heidi Feinstein, whose cafes are located in Cambridge, Lowell, and Salem. There, you might be offered sweet curry miso, ginger nama shoyu, sesame miso, or honey wasabi.
Feinstein doesn’t divulge recipes, but will share a few tips. “It’s all based on taste,” she says. “Soy is the salt and vinegar is the sour.” The classic five flavors — sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami — make an appearance in every sauce. Feinstein recommends adding small amounts of ingredients to a blender so nothing is wasted. Blend and taste, she says. Add lemon juice or apple cider vinegar if you need acidity. Balance a sharp flavor with a little more oil, or blend in nuts or seeds. For a smoky taste, add rehydrated dried smoked chili peppers; for sweeteners, maple syrup, agave, mirin (sweet rice wine), or dried fruits. Write down your proportions as you go so you don’t forget your formula. When you’re done, refrigerate the dressing in a jar for up to a few weeks.
Alia Meddeb often starts with harissa, a North African red chili-pepper paste, to make a vibrant vinaigrette. “It’s nice with fish and chicken,” says the chef and co-owner of Baraka Cafe in Cambridge. She, too, likes the smooth, thick texture a blender produces. “It makes it voluptuous,” she says.
The French-Tunisian chef incorporates caraway seed, coriander, cumin, and fresh herbs, such as mint, basil, and parsley, into her cooking. Her dressings contain similar flavors. One, a faintly sweet-spicy tomato and mint dressing, is drizzled over a hearts of palm salad; another vinaigrette hints of thyme, caraway, garlic, and Dijon mustard.
Vegetables can serve as a base for all kinds of dressings. At Harvest, executive chef Mary Dumont makes a carrot and fennel pollen vinaigrette using, she says, “the odds and ends — little nubs — of the vegetable,” left over from making other dishes. The carrot pieces are blanched first and then pureed in a blender with vinegar, fennel pollen, and a neutral-flavored oil such as canola or grapeseed. Adding a little olive oil at the end, she says, “gives it that flavor punch.” A garden vinaigrette, with a variety of vegetables, and a smoked tomato vinaigrette are two other vegetable-based dressings. Dumont’s take on the classic Green Goddess celebrates fresh herbs.
For fans of Life Alive’s popular and delicious sesame-ginger nama sauce, Feinstein offers a list of its ingredients.
“It has garlic, ginger, lemon, toasted sesame [oil], extra-virgin olive oil, apple cider vinegar, Nama shoyu, mirin, and maple syrup . . . and secret herbs,” she writes in an e-mail.