Last week, I strolled out of my office one day about 1 p.m. to find lunch, and the transition from air-conditioned building to swampland caused my glasses to fog up. The swollen air felt thick as I walked a mere block and a half for takeout, and by the time I returned to the office, my shirt was dotted with sweat. I felt feverish for a good hour afterward.
The next day, I brown-bagged it — and vowed to never forget to bring my lunch again, at least not when temperatures are in the 90s. I packed my summer usual: a salad of roasted or raw vegetables and greens topped with a homemade dressing.
The key, always, is that dressing. Why use store-bought when it’s so easy to make something good at home that doesn’t include all those stabilizers and preservatives and sweeteners?
I’ve long been a fan of a vinaigrette; my recipe typically includes less oil and more vinegar (or citrus juice) than the classic 3:1 ratio and uses a little honey to balance it out, along with mustard and garlic and whatever herb or nut (or both) strikes my fancy.
I don’t know if it’s their retro appeal, possibly stoked by my fond memories of ranch dressing on baked potatoes during my West Texas childhood, but lately I’ve turned my attention to creamier-style dressings. And I’ve been playing around with various ways to achieve such a consistency without resorting to mayonnaise, yogurt or sour cream.
It’s not that I don’t like those ingredients. Far from it. But I want a combination more waistline-friendly that showcases the flavors of the primary ingredients.
Nuts can do the trick, provided you use a blender to achieve a nice emulsion. One of my recent dressing experiments uses cashews and water instead of oil to add body and (good) fat to a dressing that also includes mint and a little vinegar. Another uses cherry tomatoes as the acidic element (and the primary flavor, along with fresh basil), while pine nuts thicken it into something that looks (but doesn’t taste) like Thousand Island.
But my favorite is one I’ve been adapting for years in various ways: The constant is silken tofu, which purees to a beautifully creamy consistency but has a blandness that lets various herbs, alone or in combination, shine through. Lately my herb of choice has been a big handful of cilantro, which — along with a little ginger, garlic, rice vinegar and lime juice — makes for a particularly punchy version of green goddess. (Basil comes in a close second.)
Did I mention that none of the three dressings use any dairy? I didn’t plan it that way, but it works for me: I’m not vegan, but the absence of cream, butter and eggs gives these condiments a flavor that’s as pure and clear as the summer sun.
More from Food: