Monday, January 24, 2011

A Spoonful of Oil

I come from a long line of overly-responsible workaholics.  What this means is that, if given a salaried job where I don't have to clock in and out as hourly employees do, I will work about sixty hours a week and spend the rest of my time, those few minutes which aren't spent sleeping or in the shower, thinking about what I should be doing at work so that I can finally get caught up and, maybe then, be able to work a forty-hour week.  Caught up, unfortunately, is a state of mind, not a circumstance, and is certainly not a state of mind that my thinking-ahead brain can fathom.

But even during the longest of work weeks, I still ate my greens.  In fact, I perfected what I called the Lazy Woman Salad over the course of many working-until-bedtime evenings.  (Amazingly, until I just typed the last sentence I never realized the injustice of calling the woman who was planning to work until bedtime lazy.  Score one for the psychotherapists.)  The salad was, in it's earliest days and on my longest nights, simply a pile of organic, pre-washed spinach transferred straight from the plastic box to my plate then drizzled with olive oil or dressing.  I didn't add sliced tomatoes, or carrot, or cucumber, so that I wouldn't have to use a cutting board or knife to make it, so that I wouldn't have to wash a cutting board or knife, so that I could get back to work all the more quickly.  Over time, I realized that I could easily dump a can of cut green beans over the salad to add calories, or I could open a can of black olives and toss a few (say, half the can) onto the salad as well.

The problem with drizzling oil or dressing over a pile of spinach leaves is that the leaves on top get all of the oil and the ones on the bottom stay dry and stick to each other in the way that spinach leaves do.  At the time I had rediscovered Mother's Cashew-Tamari Dressing and I wanted every leaf to be coated in the stuff, so I started using a mixing bowl to make my salads, tossing spinach leaves and grated Parmesan in the dressing.  Sometimes I added sprouts straight from their plastic box and sometimes I added green beans or black olives from the can, but I never used a cutting board so always felt that it was just my Lazy Woman Salad, nothing worthy of being shared with Lee, who sometimes eyed my bowlful of greens with curiosity.

In truth, I had discovered salad bliss.  Here's the recipe:  Put a few handfuls greens into a mixing bowl with a handful of sprouts and a half a handful of grated Parmesan cheese.  Pour Cashew-Tamari Dressing (recipe below) onto the greens.  Mix all ingredients with a rubber spatula until every leaf is coated.  Serve in a big bowl and tell all relations that it's just a quick, easy salad that is not worthy of sharing because otherwise they will eat all the grated Parmesan and Cashew-Tamari Dressing in the house.

I kept my secret for a couple of years.  When I made salads for Lee and me, I would dutifully get out the cutting board and pile chopped tomatoes, sliced cucumber, grated carrot, and sliced peppers onto our colorful, proper salads, along with toasted fake-chicken nuggets.  Then we would each pour as much Harriet's Texas Ranch dressing as we wanted onto our nuggets and salads.  Between official salad days, I would make myself Lazy Woman Salads and keep telling myself that I was doing Lee a favor by not sharing for two reasons.  One, this was a lazy salad lacking all the crucial toppings, and two, he should be able to self-determine dressing type and amount, not be subjected to my whims.

But one day Lee insisted that he didn't mind having whatever it was that I was making, even if it was lacking ingredients and already coated in dressing.  So I made us Lazy Woman Salads and took mine to the computer to get some work done.  A few minutes later, he walked into the computer room with an empty salad bowl and a quizzical, you've been holding out on me look on his face.  I would've explained but I was too busy licking the last of the dressing out of my salad bowl.

Now that the secret is out, all of our salads, no matter the complexity or number of ingredients, and no matter whether the cutting board is busted out or not, are made in a bowl and coated in dressing prior to being served.  And we're eating a lot of salads in these, the quiet days of winter in the weeks before the lettuces bolt.  I'm aware of every warm spell on the horizon, and now that Lee is educated in the art of what he calls salad lubrication, we're going through a lot of salad dressing.  So I decided it was about time that I try to make my own cashew-tamari dressing.  Because the real secret of salad bliss is this: be generous with the high-quality oil.  Just as a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, a spoonful of oil helps the salad go down.  In such a delightful way.

Cashew-Tamari Dressing
an attempt to recreate Mother's Cashew-Tamari Dressing

The main ingredient in Mother's Cashew-Tamari Dressing is canola oil, a neutral-flavored oil that is generally considered to be healthier than soy oil or vegetable oil blends.  I like canola oil and cooked with it for many years, but have learned that most canola plants, like most corn and soy plants, that are grown in North America are grown from genetically-modified, Round-Up-Ready seeds, which I would rather not support.  I am now using safflower oil when I need a neutral-flavored oil or one that can withstand high-heat frying. 

Napa Valley Naturals makes a safflower oil that is certified organic, expeller-pressed, and high in oleic oils (monounsaturated fats).  High-oleic safflower oils, derived from the seed of the Carthamus tinctorius plant, a relative of the sunflower, are high in vitamin E and are generally considered to be heart healthy and nutritionally similar to olive oil.  Some sources warn, though, that seed oils such as safflower should be eaten in moderation because they may be providing too much omega-6 fatty acid to our diet.

Mother's Cashew-Tamari Dressing also contains soy lecithin, which functions as an emulsifier, or helps the watery parts of the dressing (the vinegar and tamari) stay mixed within the oil of the dressing.  In homemade dressing, the lecithin is not needed.   If the dressing separates in the refrigerator, simply stir or shake to recombine.  In my experience, this dressing is gone long before separation is much of an issue.

1/2 cup cashews
2 teaspoons balsalmic vinegar
3 tablespoons tamari
1 cup safflower oil

Measure all the ingredients into a food processor or blender.  Pulse a few times to combine.  Process 30 seconds to a minute longer, until the cashews are chopped as finely as desired.  Pour into a glass jar and store in the refrigerator.

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