90’s Salad Bars Set Me Up to Fail
I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been one of those people who gets excited about just any salad. As a kid, I loved making my own “good” salads at just about any family restaurant salad bar in town (shout out to 1990s Ruby Tuesday’s, my personal fave). I’d load a handful of lettuce up with of bacon bits, cheddar, “Chinese” noodles, pepperonis if I was lucky and ranch* dressing. Oh and a tiny floret or 2 of uncooked broccoli for balance. Perfection. At home, kid me dutifully ate more straightforward “under-cheesed” (Thank God) side salads because I had to eat my vegetables.
Uncovering The Secrets To A Desirable Salad
Years later as a new adult person living in SF, I experienced thoughtfully prepared salads made by people who seemed to actually appreciate vegetables and I learned that salads could actually be delicious without my 1990’s add-ons. I noticed that this only happen at nice restaurants, not my work salad bar or at home. But why though? What was the secret component? I was determined to learn what made these fancy salads so desirable.
Over the years, I’ve figured out the key components to building a desirable, non-ranched salad. Of course, having fresh in-season vegetables is important as well as combining different yet compatible flavors and textures. But the real game changer was learning how to make my own interesting salad dressings. You want a salad dressing that brings all the flavors of the salad together so they shine! Wow, lots of passion for salad here, but a good dressing can really make salads … exciting! Clearly, Sweetgreen and others like them gets this. With just a little more effort, you can make equally tasty salads at home.
Putting It All Together
I came up with this quick and easy Spanish influenced smoky, sweet and savory dressing that is unlike ones I’ve had before. It was a big hit in the salad I brought to potluck Christmas dinner last week and now I’m excited to share it with you.
My starting idea was to use the Delicata squash on my counter to make my Pepper & Lime Roasted Squash and combine them into a salad with a pomegranate I’d just bought. I was thinking this would go well with roasted almonds for a salty crunch, creamy and tangy goat cheese and arugula and spinach as a peppery base.
This dressing gets the smoky-ness (and orange color) from smoked paprika. Nutritional yeast adds lots of umami, meaning savory flavors. I included the sherry vinegar because it’s Spanish too and thought it would play well with the goat cheese and paprika. I really like how it mellows out the lemon juice here.
While the flavors are a bit complex, making the dressing is very simple. You just chop the shallot and stir or shake everything together. You can use this with the salad combo I described above but also in many other ways. Try it on a salad with strawberries or grapes. It’s great on green beans and also with sweet potatoes. I even used it as a marinade for chicken. Leave me a message if you give it a try. I’d love to hear how it goes for you!
*No shade on ranch dressing. I still like a good Hidden Valley Ranch experience, just not on my salads these days. I keep packets on hand to mix together with Greek yogurt or Skyr and dip with bell peppers, carrots or…anything that’s around and dippable. It’s that MSG, man. Get’s me every time!
Sweet & Smoky Salad Dressing
This is a Spanish-inspired vegan dressing that's great with greens, roasted root vegetables, goat cheese and more.
As written, a 2 TBSP serving is 2 points on WW Blue/Freestyle.
This makes about 3/4 cup of dressing. Servings will depend on the portion size, but it should cover at least 14 oz of salad greens.
- 1/2 lemon (juice only)
- 1 small shallot (You’ll need 2 TBSP)
- 2 TBSP sherry vinegar
- 1/2 tsp smoked paprika
- a pinch of chipotle pepper (or more if you want it spicy)
- 1 tsp of sea salt
- 1 1/2 tsp of white sugar
- 1 tsp of Dijon mustard
- 1 TBSP nutritional yeast (see notes for more info)
- 1/3 cup avocado oil (or a neutral oil like grape seed)
- cutting board
- chef’s knife (or similar)
- glass jar with lid or medium bowl (to mix dressing)
- citrus juicer (optional for the lemon)
- measuring spoons
- measuring cup (for oil)
- whisk (if your are mixing in a bowl)
- Finely chop the shallot (you want small pieces). Add 2 tablespoons to the bowl or jar. Squeeze the juice of 1/2 the lemon over the shallot and add the 2 TBSP of Sherry vinegar. Wait 5 minutes so the acidity can do it’s work on mellowing the bite of the shallot.
- After waiting 5 minutes, add the remaining ingredients and shake or whisk everything together.
- The flavors will continue to meld together and improve over time, but it’s ready to eat now. Enjoy!
Buying Nutritional Yeast
I use Red Star Nutritional Yeast I found at Whole Foods. You can also find it in the Whole Foods bulk bins if you want to start small. Bragg is another popular brand although I haven’t tried it yet. I make a lot of popcorn and probably go through one 5oz can a year. There are several options on Amazon as well.
Other Ways to Use Nutritional Yeast
Check out my savory popcorn recipe! I keep extra yeast salt on had and use it as a seasoning when cooking vegetables, seafood and meat. I’ll mix that with lemon zest and add it to shrimp before sauteing them for a deeper savory flavor. Try it on green beans and mushrooms, sweet potatoes and in black beans. It’s also a great substitute for Parmesan cheese in a sauce.