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Dressing up

November 30, 2009

My girlfriend’s parents delight in testing my palette on every visit. Detecting plum notes in a Merlot, spotting the secret ingredient in  a stew or naming the spices in a curry – all of these I can do. The brilliant lime green paste had me stumped. 

White wine vinegar – easy; cucumber, the light cooling sweetness – a gentle base but not the lead flavour; olive oil? An obvious guess. Salt and pepper, garlic? The barrel is being scraped. Mint? Of course. And still, one more. I give up.

Gherkin – the elusive cucurbit. It provides a mellow acid from the pickling vinegar, a savor bite and a deep green. The paste – a thick, zingy dressing for salads and sandwiches – is something of a revolution. Salad dressings for me have always been (with the exception of mayonnaise’s thick yolk emulsion) firmly based on the acid-oil base: the acid usually provided by a vinegar or citrus juice, and typical additions of mustard, garlic and sugar added to get the desired flavour profile. But this is a whole different take on dressing. Yes, the oil and vinegar are there, but not as the foundation – the blitzed vegetables are what the dressing is all about. 

My brain has started whirring, thinking of other ways this concept could be utilised, creating dressings of pesto consistency to be slathered on sandwiches and dolloped on salads. Using pickled fruits and vegetables as a base, to bring the acidity to the dressing, is a great idea – it allows us to bring in summery flavours into wintery salads, and to create an unusually thick dressing; furthermore, the acidity will not be too sharp without having copious oil to mask it. 

One thing I find quite inspiring is winter salad leaves, they survive outside all winter, harvested gently to keep the plant going. It gives the opportunity of the occasional taste of the summer on those days when you need a break from rich, hearty meals. At the moment, when the very last of the apples are being picked, I am dreaming of a salad with a bit of spritz, a peppery, bittersweet mix of rocket, endives and apple, with a zingy gherkin dressing. Because it is almost winter, and the long awaited first needles of frost are forming outside as I type, a little meaty richness from some dry cured ham will be enough to round out the meal, with perhaps some parsnip crisps topping off an appealing light repast or starter for an early winters night.

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