When is it a good idea to overdress your salad?
Answer: almost never. (If you want to skip the rant & cut to the exception, scroll down to the last paragraph.) Friends know that my already-opinionated tendencies get cranked up to 11 when it comes to the topic of dressing salad. To me, excess salad dressing speaks of an underlying contempt for the vegetables in the salad… & for all vegetables as a class. I’m not saying that every individual saladmaker who overdresses his salad holds vegetables in contempt; ignorance, inexperience or lack of attention are probably more often the true culprits. But even the most hapless newbie cook guessing wildly at how to dress a salad for the first time bases her guess on something, & this is where pernicious cultural tendencies come in to play.
I think we can agree that there is a strong meat & potatoes streak running through this country we call America, & many an American has been heard saying that they’d really rather not eat any veggies at all if they could help it. If they must, well, it’s better if they’re as un-veggie-like as possible: remember ketchup? (Okay, perhaps not the fairest example.) Add fat! Add protein! Add anything to mask, to distract from, to overwhelm the veggie nature of the veggies! How many times out there on the road have I ordered “salad” & ended up with a woeful handful of iceberg crushed under the weight of almost-solid dollops of thick dressing?
A good salad should be all about the vegetables. If you don’t like greens, go eat them fried in bacon fat or something; veggies shrink when they’re cooked, so you can get more of those annoyingly necessary vitamins in fewer bites. Also, a veggie that is not quite fresh enough to become (good) salad may often be very acceptable for (good) cooking; so then you should go ahead & cook the dang thing! (Don’t come crying to me that lettuce can’t be cooked. I’m Chinese.) All of this being the case, then, isn’t salad nothing more or less than a perfect opportunity to eat many, many wonderful mouthfuls of fresh raw veggies, thus prolonging & indulging the ecstatic enjoyment of same?
If so, why would you drown this good stuff in too much dressing? In a perfectly-dressed salad, the dressing should merely lubricate the lettuce. Visually it should appear not so much as a salad ingredient itself, but mainly as a shine on the surfaces of all the other ingredients. When you put lotion on your hands, do you leave drops & clumps of white opaque stuff visible all over your skin? I hope not. Use a small enough amount of dressing so that it barely films the leaves.
In order to accomplish this, you must be willing to toss your salad. I cannot emphasize this enough. Use a large bowl so that you have room to turn your salad over without dropping half of it outside the bowl. Put all your lettuce & stuff in this large bowl, then take a wee tiny bit of dressing & pour it over the top. It will look like it can’t possibly be enough. Have faith! Start lifting up big batches of salad from the sides of the bowl, dropping them in the middle. Pull salad from the bottom & put it on top. Move more-dressed stuff into contact with undressed stuff. The more lightly you want to dress your salad, the more tossing you have to do. It will be worth it. When the dressing is no longer discernable as a separate thing, & all parts of the salad are subtly glistening, you’re done.
Eat your salad!
If you get to the bottom of the salad bowl & there is a puddle of dressing there, you used too much dressing.
Except. There is always an exception, right?
Except when it’s high tomato season & there are dry-farmed Early Girls from Dirty Girl. Then, then you make yourself a salad that is mostly tomatoes (hold each tomato over the bowl as you cut it into chunks, so as to catch every drop of juice), a little bit o’ lettuce, a little bit o’ basil, & you pour on just a little too much dressing (olive oil, balsamic, salt & pepper). Why? Because as you eat your salad, the tomatoes will juice themselves all into the bottom of the bowl, & when you get down there, you will find the most divine puddle of tomato juice, seasoned with that bit of extra dressing, & you can plop a piece of sourdough toast in it & go swooning off to heaven. That’s why.