Although I’ve been cooking and watching other people cook for as long as I can remember, I still feel my inexperience when I witness a culinary veteran, in whom years of kitchen fiddling have produced a set of ingrained skills and recipes, tricks always up their sleeves for display.
My toolbox of staple recipes, of things ‘every cook should know how to do,’ is still far from completion, and I love watching those more knowledgeable than I effortlessly pull meals together from thin air, combining skill and practice with delicious results.
The person whom I place most immediately in this category is my mother, who can make French bread, pizza dough, popovers and pie crusts without recipes or fuss. Homemade ice cream or pasta, perfect omelets or poached eggs? Done in the blink of an eye.
Her immeasurable repertoire of skills have always been a fascination, and I’ve been increasingly enticed by the idea of working towards a similar mastery. Building up such an impressive arsenal is obviously a gradual process, but small steps have been made.
I have a delicious yellow cake recipe that I can make in 20 minutes, minimal recipe-checking required. Substituting ingredients I have for those I don’t is coming more and more naturally, and I’ve made a few loaves of bread that looked, smelled and tasted as they should. One of my recent goals has been to find the perfect salad dressing, one that is flexible and forgiving, can be made out of kitchen staples, and doesn’t have more ingredients than I can remember.
Making infinitely varying, consistently delicious salad dressings are one of many tasks my mom executes with impossible casualness. A hundred distinct memories of this blur into one: she stands in front of our impossibly large wooden salad bowl, squeezing lemon halves, adding shots of Tabasco and grinding black pepper, talking and whisking and tasting.
Of course, as a result of living with a Salad Dressing Queen I have turned into a supreme Salad Dressing Snob. Often, I find store bought dressing overwhelmingly acidic or unappealingly creamy, and am left halfheartedly poking at a drippy salad, picking out chickpeas and throwing half of it away. While at Vassar, I yearn for the dressings of home, notes of garlic, lemon or coarse black pepper with every bright crunchy bite.
All signs declared it was time to find a dressing I could make on my own, easily perfected and consistently delicious. Then I got Deb Perelman’s “The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook” for Christmas last year (if you’ve never heard of her or her incredible blog, run to your computer and look it up right now!), and this dressing just fell into my lap.
It whips up in five minutes, and after making it twice, I no longer use the recipe, just ‘measure’ imprecise quantities with a regular spoon and taste as I go. It requires no planning, no shopping and no technique.
It will not cause exclamations of shock and awe. It will not be the highlight of the meal—no. The purpose of a staple dressing is to be easy and tasty, and not to overwhelm the senses. Dressed lettuce, kale or arugula should still taste like lettuce, kale or arugula.
So I give you this salad dressing that Deb Perelman gave to me. If you’re in a dorm, you will almost certainly have to buy a few ingredients, but otherwise you just need a bowl, a fork and a jar.
Bring this salad dressing to the Deece or the Retreat. Turn spinach, mushrooms and cucumbers into spinach, mushrooms and cucumbers with honey mustard dressing on them. Eschew those plastic bottles of overly sharp balsamic and add something to your repertoire of culinary skills. Join me on this side of the homemade line.
“Smitten Kitchen’s Honey Mustard”
From “The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook” by Deb Perelman
I hesitate to call this honey mustard, which recalls mayonnaisey globs of cloying yellow sauce, ordered as complement to McDonald’s chicken nuggets. This is so, so far from that. This is a creamy, pale yellow dressing, warm, sweet and not at all overpowering. But let’s call a spade a spade: this is honey mustard, only the kind of honey mustard destined for greater things than hockey puck chicken or shoe string French fries. It’s not life-changing, but the purpose of the humble, staple dressing is not to change lives: it’s to be easy, and tasty, and to not make lettuce, or kale, or arugula taste too different from lettuce, or kale or arugula.
6 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons white wine or apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoon Dijon mustard
3 teaspoons honey
Salt and pepper to taste
Combine all ingredients with a fork or whisk until smooth. Taste and adjust as needed. Store in a jar or bottle in the fridge, dressing will keep for two or three months.
Note: I doubled the original recipe for ‘bulk’ use—consider cutting it back down if you’re using it for a single meal, or making even more if you want a longer supply. Deb’s recipe calls for white wine vinegar, I’ve always used apple cider because that’s what I’ve had on hand. Both are delicious!