I lived in the Midwest at the end of its culinary Dark Ages, when a green salad in a restaurant often meant a small bowl of wet, chopped iceberg lettuce floating in a sea of dressing. You had two choices for dressing: creamy (ranch or Thousand Island) or sticky sweet (“Italian” or “French”). Or, because I grew up on the East Coast eating salads dressed at the table both at home and in restaurants, I asked for the oil and vinegar that most restaurants have lurking on the service counter in a steel carrier, and I dressed the salad myself, which usually drew stares.
It's worthwhile to know how to make dressings–in my book, a real
vinaigrette with bleu cheese stirred in beats the creamy goopy dressing
any day–but knowing how to dress a salad the Italian way is a skill that
is portable outside the home kitchen; knowing what to do with cruets of
oil and vinegar in a restaurant is a way to save yourself the pain of
syrupy-sweet Sysco dressings.
The creation of salad dressings
actually in the salad bowl is not limited to the Italians, of course–the
Spanish do it this way, the Greeks do too, and the Caesar salad, a
Mexican invention that took off like kudzu in the United States, is traditionally made in the bowl one ingredient at a time (egg yolk, lemon or lime juice, olive oil, garlic, Worcestershire sauce and black pepper).
You'll need a cruet of olive oil and a cruet of vinegar, as well as shakers of salt and pepper. Red wine vinegar is the best choice here; balsamic produces a strange, sweet dressing that can overwhelm the flavors in the salad. If you only have balsamic, use more pepper than you normally would. Alternatively, use a fresh lemon to provide the acid (this would be more properly called a citronette, not a vinaigrette, but using that word identifies you as a food snob).
1. Shake a little bit of vinegar onto the salad. For a typical, single-portion appetizer salad served before dinner, shake the vinegar cruet four times and toss the salad lightly with a fork and spoon. If you put the oil first, the vinegar will not cling to the leaves.
2. Shake olive oil onto the salad. For that single-portion dinner salad, shake the oil cruet twelve times, then toss lightly again.
3. Add salt and pepper–this is very important–and toss a third time. If you move the greenery aside, there should not be much dressing in the bottom of the bowl.
4. Taste the salad and add more of whatever you feel is needed.
As you get used to doing this, you'll figure out how you like your dressings–more oily, more tart, more or less salty. You can add herbs if you like, though the best flavor comes from adding fresh herbs directly to the salad. If you need to make this ahead of time, shake the ingredients together with a touch of good mustard in a small container with a tight lid; it should keep without separating for at least two hours.