Challenging the Salad Dressing Paradigm: 

A Gardener's Guide to 100% Homegrown Salad


by Carol Deppe

(A version of this article first appeared on AlterNet)


The modern paradigm for a salad is a bowl of a relatively limited number of relatively bland vegetables to which we add the flavor via salad dressing. Most perennial vegetables, fresh herbs, and wild greens have strong flavors. Many of these greens are unusually nutritious, and some are especially easy for home gardeners to grow. In addition, markets these days often also carry a good repertoire of herbs and greens with stronger flavors. However, if we include substantial amounts of highly flavorful greens in a salad and dress it with a standard salad dressing, we end up with overwhelming instead of pleasing flavor. Many people respond by sticking to salads based mostly upon lettuce. The full-flavored greens just don't fit into the mild-ingredients-plus-flavorful-dressing paradigm. I opt for biodiversity in the salad bowl, the diet, and the garden. What I eliminate is the salad dressing. I challenge the entire concept of  salad dressing. Here's my approach:

1. I use substantial amounts of full-flavored leaves in my salads. I can use lots more if I use small amounts of many of different types rather than a large amount of one of them. Onion greens, garlic greens, wild garlic, lovage, salad burnet, young horseradish leaves, sorrel, mustard greens, carrot tops, Alexanders Greens, young dandelion greens, and many others find their way into my salads.

2. I like milder salad ingredients too. I mix them with the stronger-flavored greens and herbs. By eliminating the salad dressing I make more room for strong-flavored greens as actual salad ingredients. I often use carrots or apples as part of my milder ingredients. Apples go great in salads (or sandwiches). (A little lemon juice, sauerkraut juice, or ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) will keep the apples from browning.)

3. I put all the smaller amounts of various herbs in a big leaf of something (kale, horseradish leaf, lettuce, cabbage), roll the smaller bits up in the leaf, and slice the roll very fine. This allows me to cut all the strongest-flavored greens very fine with little effort.

4. I don't use a generic mixed dressing, home-made or commercial. Instead I taste the combination of greens and vegetables I have in the bowl that day and season to taste with something sour such as lemon or vinegar (if there are no sour ingredients), some oil (if there are no oily ingredients), water (if needed), and a little salt. I may use some dried herbs too. If so, they are chosen to complement the specific salad.

5. I often include oily ingredients in the salad (sliced hard-cooked eggs, sunflower seeds, slivered hazelnuts) instead of using store-bought, extracted oil. (I have a flock of laying ducks. A few laying hens or ducks fit into many backyards and wonderfully complement gardening.) Sometimes I blend nuts or sunflower seeds in water and use that in the salad instead of oil or whole or slivered nuts or seeds. Sometimes I mash a hard-cooked egg yolk in a little water to give a creamy texture and use that in the salad, with the egg white pieces as one of the ingredients.

Here's a big-picture way of looking at a modern conventional salad: First we breed the flavor out of a few vegetables so they will be as mild as possible. Then we have companies growing and selling specially potent vegetables with extra strong flavors (dried herbs) to add back to the mild vegetables to make up for all the flavor we bred out of our main salad ingredients. Meanwhile, other companies take perfectly good oil-seeds such as sunflowers and process out the oil for our salad and feed the protein to animals. Yet other companies make vinegar. Another company combines the herbs with water, vinegar, oil, and salt to make a commercial dressing. We dump this oily soury full-flavored mixture on a bowl of bland vegetables to make up for the oil, sourness, and flavor we left out of the ingredients in the bowl. For a really luxuriously filling salad that is a whole dinner, however, we may also want to add some eggs, cheese, or meat to make up for the protein we lost when we extracted the oil from the sunflowers and gave the protein to animals. Meanwhile, even for the home gardener, the salad-dressing paradigm means "home-grown" salads in which much of the flavor and nearly all the calories come from commercial or processed products.

We gardeners can do much better. Anyone with access to a modern market that has a good repertoire of full-flavored greens and fresh herbs can also do much better. By using fresh full-flavored herbs and vegetables, we and can eat larger amounts of a bigger variety of greens, and we don't need commercial dried herbs. With cooked eggs or sunflowers or nuts in our salad, we don't need to add commercial extracted oil. And if we have sorrel in the salad (or sauerkraut) we don't even need the vinegar.