Making Salad Sing...

How to make salad dressing and croutons at home
Even the humblest of salads can sing, if you follow a couple of tips.
I'm not a particular health nut, but boy do I love a good salad. I don't know why people don't make them more. Most people think of salad as something they either order at a restaurant, or make at home by buying a bag of lettuce and pouring over hidden valley ranch.

For my money, a salad needs to have a few things - texture, freshness and contrast. The texture either comes from crunchy veggies (like romaine lettuce, cucumbers, etc) or crunchy toppings (seeds, nuts, croutons). The freshness comes from raw veggies or acidity in the dressing. And the contrast comes from whatever you need/use to balance the two. For example, a spinach salad has to be more than just spinach. there's no crunch, so every recipe for spinach salad you find will include bacon bits, croutons, or nuts/seeds so you get a texture to bite into. Spinach isn't the brightest vegetable taste-wise and it can be bitter, so you'll usually see it paired with a sweet vinaigrette to play against the bitterness and give you added acidity and freshness. Final garnishes, like dried cranberries or cheese are usually then chosen to give contrast and bring balance to the components already chosen. When you think about it, it's a pretty simple formula, and one based on you buying the bulk of the ingredients to assemble at home.

Your first job in making a salad that sings is buying your main ingredients wisely. If the romaine lettuce at the grocery store looks wilted, it is not the time for Caesar salad. And while those bags of salad greens are easy and convenient, they are pretty pricey and not always the tastiest options. Choose a green that they've got by the head that looks good and fresh, and get in that kitchen and play! And lettuce greens aren't your only options. What other veggies look good? Cucumber and tomatoes are favorites of mine and are very common, but beans, peas, jicama, bell peppers, corn, mushrooms, and loads of fruits can all be used. Or make a composed salad,  a slaw, or a shaved vegetable salad (raw beets when sliced thin enough are very tasty). Just go to your store or market or wherever and pick out the vegetables that look like they are going to be tastiest.

So other than deciding what you want in your salad (choosing greens, veggies, accompaniments) what components can you make and therefore control yourself?

Salad Dressing
In my opinion, the most important thing to make yourself is the salad dressing. I am constantly amazed by the size of the salad dressing section of the grocery store, when salad dressing is a cinch to make at home. It's so much better tasting (not to mention better for you) if you take the 30 seconds (literally, 30 seconds) to make it yourself. Now, I'm not gonna lie, in the beginning it will take you longer than 30 seconds because you'll be getting to know your own taste buds, but once you start tinkering and tasting, the actual making takes 30 seconds if you use a blender, a minute if you whisk by hand or shake in a mason jar.

Your dressing can be as simple or as complex as you desire. Olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper, all by themselves makes a tasty dressing. I started by trying the standard proportions for American vinaigrette, 3 parts oil to 1 part vinegar. I found this way too oily for me, I tend to like a lot of acidity, and I'm usually closer to a 3 to 2 ratio. I no longer measure anything, I eyeball and pour until it tastes right. Just don't forget to add the salt and pepper.

Here is where the fun begins. The oil can be anything you like, from very plain, to crazy exotic.  To the left is a sampling of oils from my pantry. While I love extra virgin olive oil, both the green peppery stuff and the lighter more delicate styles, recently I've been playing with nut oils. In salads where you might add nuts, these oils bring deeper flavor. The only oil in the photo I don't like in salad dressing is the black truffle (an impulse purchase). When I want a neutral oil, I stick with grapeseed for its clean flavor and light color. The delicata squash seed oil is another newer addition that I've been enjoying when I want a toastier flavor, like a less concentrated version of sesame oil.

The acid can come from any number of vinegars, I have quite an affinity for these, but also any other acidic liquid like lemon or orange juice. Mustard is a nice addition to vinaigrettes too, it adds flavor and helps the oil and vinegar emulsify. Sweeteners, like honey or agave, can also add depth or proportion. Fresh or dried herbs as well as fresh or dried onions, garlic and shallots can take the vinagrette into a million different directions. And who says you have to stick with vinaigrettes? Add an egg yolk (mayo works too, if you are afraid of raw eggs,) sour cream, creme fraiche, buttermilk or greek yogurt and you've got millions more options. Cheese is lovely and I haven't yet brought up my favorite ingredient for salad dressing - anchovies. Both caesar and green goddess dressing get their kick from anchovies - so don't be shy! One rule of thumb, a simple dressings can be made and eaten right on the spot. But if you are making something that uses dry ingredients, a lot of ingredients, or is creamy, it will taste a lot better if you make it several hours in advance and let the flavors come together. And if you make it in advance, go light on the salt, wait until the flavors meld before you finalize your seasoning. Remember too that olive oil solidifies at fridge temps, so your dressing will seem really thick (or solid) in the fridge if there's a lot of oil. It'll liquefy as it warms up when you take it out.

Some of my favorite** combos:
These are just the basic ingredients, you can take add or remove as you see fit. I don't include measurements because I honestly haven't measured salad dressing ingredients in years. To start, I'd go with 1 part acid to 3 parts oil and check what you think of the balance, then start adding the rest.

The Procedure:
You can simply put the salad dressing ingredients in a bowl and whisk away (adding the oil last and slowly so the dressing can emulsify), or pop all the ingredients in a blender (less convenient if you aren't making a lot of dressing), but my preferred method for making dressing is in a mason jar. You add your ingredients, pop on the lid and shake. 
Here we have a basic vinaigrette, red wine vinegar, walnut oil, a dribble of mustard and salt and pepper.
Here is the same jar after a 30 second shake. Perfectly simple, and can be popped right in the fridge.
 **My two all time favorite salads are Caesar and Greek salad, but you'll have to wait for me to post those recipes since I am particular about both the salad ingredients and the dressing.

Homemade Croutons (so easy it's not even a recipe)
Lastly, since I adore croutons on my salads, I'll leave you instructions for homemade croutons. They are a cinch to make and are also great as a garnish for soups.

Preheat your oven to 350 F. Cube or tear bread (you can use stale bread, fresh bread, leftover whatever, it all works) into bite size pieces and put on a sheet tray. Drizzle oil of your choosing (I almost always use extra virgin olive) and spices of choosing, toss to combine, then bake in the oven for roughly 20 minutes (longer if your pieces are big). I usually use salt, pepper, garlic powder, and Italian seasoning, but any dried herbs or spices work based on your taste, and a sprinkle of grated cheese can be nice too. And if you are a butter lover, you don't have to bake croutons, you can throw them in a frying pan after you've melted some butter then season as you wish.

Stale bread, cut into cubes, mixed with oil, salt, pepper, garlic powder and Italian seasoning.

After about 20 minutes in the oven.