Friday, May 18, 2007

The secret to real Italian salad dressing

Bill's secret to the best Italian dressing

What is it about the south that real Italian food is so hard to find? I'm talking about family-owned Italian restaurants that have been in business 50+ years, whose traditional recipes come straight from the old country. Sorry, but chains like Carraba's, Macaroni Grill and Olive Garden just don't cut it. This is painfully clear when you ask for Italian dressing and they give you some white, mayonnaise-based crap . . . gross! There is no such thing as 'creamy Italian dressing' in my book. (And guess what, there is nothing from Italy called "Alfredo sauce" - completely an American invention, probably by Shoney's)

Although traditional Italian is just oil and vinegar, Italian family restaurants improved on that theme with a tradition of making their own great dressings by adding garlic and spices. Now you can have that Italian dressing with great garlic and herb flavor but you must have the tools and #1 is: the mortar and pestle (photo). So, here's how you do it, it takes less than 5 minutes:

Basic method -
  1. Get one or two pealed cloves of fresh garlic and a few teaspoons of Kosher salt or coarse sea salt and put them in the mortar.
  2. Grind with pestle until garlic and salt become a paste.
  3. Add fresh extra virgin olive oil and Italian spices (basil, oregano, thyme, rosemary).
  4. Grind some more, infusing the oil with the garlic and spices.
  5. Add red wine or balsamic vinegar, grind some more and presto, you're done.
There you have it. A great salad dressing, dipping sauce or marinade. Great for grilling too. The proportion to oil and vinegar is a personal choice, I prefer 50/50 but most people like slightly more oil than vinegar.

Variations - for a more Mediterranean flavor, add lemon juice instead of vinegar. For a summer salad (like spinach with pear, died cranberries and nuts) add orange juice and a few drops of sesame oil. For spicy marinades, grind hot pepper in with the mix. Add honey for a sweeter dressing. You can also grind raw peeled ginger with honey and sesame oil, add rice wine vinegar for a great Asian dressing. The possibilities are endless, but you gotta have the mortar and pestle.

The bottom line is - the only way to prepare garlic is to grind it into a paste with a mortar and pestle. It is the best way to completely infuse the olive oil with the flavor of Italian spices and garlic. Garlic presses, minced, or smashed garlic just isn't as good. And stay the hell away from pre-pealed, and/or pickled garlic. It has to be fresh. Speaking of fresh, try Penzey's for great quality spices. Good spices make a difference.

This is from a guy who lives on salads... happy, healthy and flavorful eating!


mrsmom5 said...

I just made this dressing with all four fresh herbs from my garden and oh my goodness!! Delicious!
I can't wait to try it out on the fam.

Rapunzel said...

Stumbled upon your blog while searching for an Italian dressing using the fresh herbs from my garden. Since I was also looking for an excuse to use my new mortar & pestle, this was perfect!

Delicious, fresh & easy, thanks so much!

Anonymous said...

This was very good. I used a spice from Penzey's in Kirkwood, MO called Pasta sprinkle and then added some rosemary. This was really good. I was craving something similar to the dressing from Serra's Pizza.

Anonymous said...

interesting article. I would love to follow you on twitter.

mittenlady said...

So very delicious! Made with fresh herbs from my garden, too, and what a difference! I also added some prepared mustard to emulsify and add a little spice. Love this!

Anonymous said...

Just made the dressing to marinate tortallini for antipasta kabobs, I licked the pestle!!!