Salads are great year round, but their lightness and cool refreshing taste is particularly welcome in the heat of summer. During the summer I often dress salads with nothing but some fresh herbs, olive oil and either lemon juice or one of the many vinegars I have in my pantry. It's a quick and easy solution with nothing leftover. However, this is not to say that I don't sometimes make up a batch of blue cheese, ranch, or a more formal vinaigrette.
My usual salad dressing is a last-minute vinaigrette. What kind of vinaigrette? That depends on the rest of the meal because the great things about vinaigrettes are they're quick, easy, and adaptable. Let's say I'm serving lasagna, in this case I might combine olive oil, red wine vinegar, and a mixture of Italian herbs such as oregano, rosemary, savory, and parsley. For a Provencal soufflé I could choose olive oil, white wine vinegar, Dijon mustard, and lavender. Pastitisio (a sort of Greek lasagna) might call for olive oil, the brine from feta cheese, and oregano.
Common wisdom is that ranch dressing is America's most popular salad dressing. I've never seen any verification of this factoid, but it's certainly widespread. True or not, ranch dressing is a great alternative to sweet dressings like French and 1000 Island and is milder than blue cheese and Italian. Best of all, it's not limited to salads. You can smear it on salmon or chicken before grilling, which makes a tasty savory glaze. Or you can top vegetables such as broccoli or asparagus.
My father invented this salad dressing (hence Dad's Dressing), which is actually based on Dale's Steak Sauce. It has a tremendously hearty flavor but the consistency is light enough to dress baby greens. In my family we particularly like adding it to green salads that include leftover grilled meat; whether beef, chicken, pork, or lamb. In fact, when I grill meat I always make a point of cooking more than I need so that I have the pleasure of the salad the next day for lunch or as a light dinner.
I remember blue cheese dressing as a kid, served on a wedge of iceberg lettuce at S&W Cafeteria; an old, elegant, and beautiful Art Nouveau building in downtown Knoxville. I loved it and have loved blue cheese ever since. This version is on the potent side, but can be toned down with the addition of more oil or even a few tablespoons of heavy cream or buttermilk. Unlike most recipes it doesn't include mayonaise.
I first developed a pear vinaigrette for a cooking class. It was excellent, but when I posted it some weeks later one of my readers, Wendy Tien, immediately turned it around made it Asian. I had no choice but to try her ideas and although dramatically different from my original recipe it was also delicious - two recipes for the price of one!
When I was a kid (and liked sweet dressings) Thousand Island Dressing was my second favorite after blue cheese (which should never be sweet). But back then it was far easier to get a decent 1000 Island dressing than blue cheese dressing at the grocery and in restaurants - in fact it still is although the situation has improved. This version isn't the original (created by Sophia LaLonde at the 1000 Island Inn), which included chives and chopped eggs but no relish or onion. Nevertheless, it's not bad - particularly with burgers and Reuben sandwiches.
This avocado ranch dressing is adapted from a recipe I found in Cooks Illustrated some years ago. It proved to be a great hit with my clients and although I'm not a huge avocado fan (I neither avoid nor seek it out) I love this dressing. This will dress about three salads (choose a heavy lettuce such as romaine and add chunks of tomato, cucumbers, and radishes) and will keep two weeks in the refrigerator.