Vintage salad

August 25, 2012 § 1 Comment

I made this salad for the dressing. Also for the purslane, which is proliferating in the raised beds where my roommate’s tomato plants died, but mostly because I have fallen in with buttermilk-chive dressing, for the nth consecutive summer in a row, and I am finding a way to eat it with everything. Grilled okra. Seared okra. Tomato salads. Butter beans (I haven’t actually procured these yet, but I plan to, and I plan to eat them with buttermilk-chive dressing). In truth, this is glorified Ranch dressing—at least from where I’m standing. Hidden Valley’s original version surely followed on the heels of buttermilk dressings made in home kitchens, but I grew up in the 80s, and my mom didn’t especially like to cook, so I knew the commercial varieties first. The dressing I make now is a throwback to this—the one salad dressing I really loved when I was a kid, the kind we made “from scratch” with mayonnaise, milk, and those packets of dehydrated onion, garlic, and crack (msg, really, but it’s a fine line, isn’t it?) Hidden Valley came out with in the 70s. I haven’t tasted that stuff in years, but I think my version—garlic pounded in a mortar and pestle, plus mayonnaise, buttermilk, chives and white pepper—is probably better and at least as good, and it’s a way for me to relish the flavors of the 80s without having to compromise on things like not buying salad dressing with a shelf-life.

Of course, in 1985, my mom would have served this dressing with a salad of iceberg lettuce, cucumbers, and tomato wedges. Sundays in the summer, when my dad would buy a steak to grill, it would have shared the plate with thin slices of sirloin, charred in spots and rosy in the middle, and a russet potato that had baked over the coals. I no longer eat meat, but I still remember the salty, tangy, smoky alchemy of steak with ranch dressing. I think I even dressed the potato with it in lieu of butter, sometimes.

The other day, after I’d crushed a clove of garlic in my little marble mortar, the one I use explicitly for grinding salt and spices and making dressing and aioli, because it’s really too small to be good for much of anything else, and I’d added the mayonnaise (store-bought, I confess) and whisked in the buttermilk and the minced chives and added just enough salt and pepper, I drizzled it over a mess of purslane, crunchy like iceberg lettuce, quartered sungold tomatoes, and ribbons of a quirky heirloom Italian squash called cucuzza that seems to aspire to be a cucumber. Since the 80s, since I’ve been cooking for myself, really, I’ve come to love more acidic dressings, vinaigrettes made with sherry vinegar, or Champagne vinegar, and most especially with shallots. I love them with red wine vinegar and dijon mustard. But this creamy, tangy, punchy dressing is the one that has my number.

I’m reminded of a section of Adam Gopnik’s marvelous The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food, in which he posits that despite our evolving palates, our increasing exposure and appeal to new and different foods, and different ways of cooking and eating and thinking about food, we always like the same foods we’ve always liked. I’m not sure I agree with him entirely. But here, in terms of buttermilk salad dressing, it works, at least for me. We change; our tastes do, too. But not really.

For buttermilk-chive dressing, pound 1 small clove of garlic with a pinch of salt in a mortar and pestle. With a fork, stir in about 1 tablespoon of mayonnaise (preferably something with just a few ingredients, like Delouis, or your own), and 1 tablespoon buttermilk, more or less depending on the consistency you’re after (thinner if you’re using it as a dressing for lettuces, thicker if you’re using it for dipping). Add sea salt and fresh-cracked black or white pepper to taste, plus 2 teaspoons or so of minced chives. Double, triple, etc., as necessary. This makes enough for one dinner-plate sized salad or a couple of small ones.

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