In culinary school, one of the first things they teach you is to rely on ratios, not recipes. It’s a practical thing, if you think about it: it doesn’t make much sense to memorize a recipe that can only make X amount of something, when you might need to quickly scale it up or down depending on how many servings you need. Ratios were important for everything from sauces to pastries, and knowing simple ratios for things is one of the best tools I still use as a home cook (and you can too — check out this short, easy to follow book filled with ratios for home cooking. It’s a gem!).
One of my favorite, never-forget-it ratios? Vinaigrettes. 2:1::oil:acid. Admittedly, my ratio is my personal preference, because I like a strong, vinegar-forward salad dressing. Yours might have more oil, if you like it a bit more delicate. We have this thing in our house where a salad is just a salad, but a salad with a vinaigrette you spend some time on? Potentially magic. So if we’re planning on eating a salad as a main course, I usually try and concoct some unique vinaigrette, versus dumping oil and vinegar over the bowls and calling it a day. Somehow, it always makes the salad feel special. Weird, I know!
(And as an aside, I’m very anti pre-made, bottled salad dressing. They’re often filled with stabilizers and preservatives, and I think their flavors tend to veer between being artificial, muted, and kinda gross. Buy some vinegars and keep them in your pantry. I promise, you can make unbelievably good vinaigrettes at home, in virtually no time at all.)
Recently, I’ve been experimenting with different dressings and vinaigrettes that rely on tahini to thicken — and of course, provide a welcome dose of warm nuttiness. You can add a bit of tahini to a vinaigrette on its own to provide an extra layer of toasty complexity, or build upon it and create far more unique dressings with whatever mustards, vinegars, and spices you have lying around. On a recent evening, I made a tahini vinaigrette made with white balsamic vinegar, red wine vinegar (vinegar mixing is a secret weapon too!), smoked paprika and freshly minced thyme. It was fabulous paired over a simple vegetable salad of tomatoes, cucumber, red onion, bell pepper, and feta, paired with roasted lamb. Mix in a bit of honey if you like your vinaigrette sweeter; use the opportunity to try dashes of this and that from your spice cabinet or herb garden. While tahini’s been my latest flavor of the month (literally), vinaigrettes are an easy way to get creative and experiment with flavors you may not be used to.
This past weekend, I was craving the flavor of caesar salad and thought I’d substitute the dressing’s oft-used egg yolk for tahini. The result was really delicious — the classic, piquant flavor of parmesan cheese and garlic was unexpectedly great with tahini’s deep nuttiness. We poured ours over a salad of chopped kale and spinach with walnuts, chicken, cucumber, scallion, and tomato (basically, a caesar salad plus a fridge cleanout). You can keep yours more classic and toss with romaine, chicken, and croutons. But I like to think the tahini gives this “caesar-ish” dressing license to be paired with whatever salad ingredients you choose. Go wild! ;)
Tahini Caesar Salad Dressing
Makes about 1 cup dressing
3 cloves garlic (see note, below)
1.5 tablespoons Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons tahini (ensure it is well mixed before measuring)
juice of 1 lemon
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
scant 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/8-1/4 teaspoon black pepper (season to taste)
1/8-1/4 teaspoon white pepper (season to taste)
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil (more, to taste)
3/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano (see note, below)
In a food processor, combine the garlic, mustard, tahini, lemon, vinegar, salt and peppers. Blend to combine, until the garlic is incorporated and the mixture is smooth. With the motor running, pour the 1/2 cup of olive oil into the food processor bowl in a steady stream, to emulsify the dressing. It should be thick and creamy. Taste for seasoning; I tend to like my dressings pretty vinegar-y, so if you like it less harsh, add 1-2 tbsp more oil. Add in the parmesan cheese, and run the food processor again until the cheese is well incorporated and the dressing smooth. Move to a bowl and store, or toss directly with your prepared salad greens.
Equipment notes: while we have both a regular size (14 cup) food processor, and a mini one (like this), I prefer the mini for this particular recipe. With small recipes like this, I find the larger food processor won’t get the garlic truly chopped and pulverized. If you only have a larger size, it’ll work fine, but you may want to chop your garlic before adding it to the processor bowl, and be sure to scrape down the sides of the bowl a couple times, to ensure everything is chopped very finely and incorporated well. If you don’t have a food processor, you can try this recipe in a blender, or go old school and do it by hand with a whisk!
Ingredient notes: while parmesan cheese grated fresh from a wedge of real Parmigiano Reggiano is going to make this dressing taste the best, if you’re in a pinch or lazy (hey, I’ve been there), you can substitute with pre-shredded or grated parmesan from the refrigerated cheese section of your grocery. But under no circumstances should you substitute with the shelf stable stuff in a green can! Have I taught you nothing? Finally, note that this recipe is heavy on the garlic, because we’re into that sort of thing around here. If you’re planning on taking this dressing to work, or eating it in any scenario where close quarters might make you uncomfortable if you just ate a bunch of garlic…well, you might prefer only 1 or 2 cloves.
Ways to use it: This dressing is great over chopped kale for a pseudo-kale caesar. We also tried it tossed with raw shaved Brussels sprouts as a kind of “sprout slaw,” and it was delish! It’d make a great dip for roasted potatoes (or any roasted veggie, really), and is of course good poured over big leaves of romaine hearts.