Prolific cookbook author, award-winning longtime journalist and radio host, and chef Michele Anna Jordan is one of the wine country’s great food-world voices. She is the author of 17 books (and a contributor to and collaborator on half a dozen more) and writes a weekly blog, Eat This Now, for the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. A second-generation Californian, she lives in Sebastopol and has written extensively about the rich agricultural heritage and gastronomic treasures of Sonoma County. Her latest book, Vinaigrettes and Other Dressings: 60 Sensational Recipes to Liven Up Greens, Grains, Slaws, and Every Kind of Salad, was published by Harvard Common Press just in time to inspire a summer’s worth of salads, with recipes to banish the gunky-bottle clutter from your fridge door forever.
I’ve been lucky enough to have Michele as a friend and colleague for many years and have been a guest on her food-themed radio show Mouthful: The Wine Country’s Most Delicious Hour on public radio station KRCB. In between the demands of her deadlines, her study of traditional Hawaiian hula (a lifelong love of hers and one she’s now pursuing formally) and her beloved dachshunds, we caught up via email to talk about her latest book.
Bay Area Bites: As a frequent housesitter, I can tell you that even fancy foodie types weigh down their fridge doors with an astounding number of cruddy, half-used bottles of commercial salad dressing. Crazy, especially since a basic, fresh vinaigrette takes about 2 seconds to shake up. How did we get so lazy? Or, for the more conspiracy-minded, how did the food industry convince us that salad dressing is something you buy, not make?
Jordan: The answer is b), the food industry is to blame. It goes along with the entire culture these days, this false perception that cooking well is hard and takes a long time. It’s the Food Network syndrome, treating cooking as passive entertainment, with a foundational philosophy that if a chef makes something it is, by definition, better than anything someone can do at home. This is a reverse of the long-held understanding that restaurants were to give home cooks a break–a “rest,” the root of the word–but not necessarily better food. It’s so annoying!
The same holds true today with prepared foods. But all you have to do is read the ingredients list on virtually any dressing to know things inside that bottle are not right. Put the bottle back on the shelf and walk away.
Bay Area Bites: In developing these 60 recipes, did any surprise you–either an unlikely combo of ingredients that went together really well, or a bright idea that popped up out of nowhere? Do you have any new favorite go-tos now?
Jordan: I don’t think anything really surprised me. This is simply how I cook, and has been for a long time. I do have a new vinaigrette that surprised me but it didn’t make it into the book, as it arrived, so to speak, too late. It is a chocolate vinaigrette that is really quite remarkable; it is based on water kefir and has all the flavor but none of the texture of chocolate. I’ll be posting it on the book’s web site, saladdresser.com, as soon as the site launches, hopefully by the end of August.
Bay Area Bites: Summer means picnics, road trips, and potlucks to me–any salad favorites from the book that travel well? What about summer favorites in general, especially inventive or offbeat ones?
Jordan: Roasted Garlic Vinaigrette travels well and is nothing at all like commercial roasted garlic dressings. It’s light, ephemeral and lovely with summer produce, especially tomatoes and zucchini. When it’s hot, the Cool As a Cucumber dressing and the Watermelon Vinaigrette will cool you off in a delicious way. Moroccan Melody: Chermoula (recipe reprinted below) is a current fave; I love it on almost everything and it’s particularly great on zucchini, summer tomatoes, bread salad, potato salad and a lot more. The chermoula-dressed deviled eggs, which you can see in the photograph, are another favorite thing.
Bay Area Bites: What are the biggest or most common mistakes people make regarding salads and salad dressings?
Jordan: Biggest mistakes are using inferior ingredients, especially cheap olive oils and vinegars; adding too many ingredients; omitting or scrimping on salt; using pre-ground pepper instead of grinding whole peppercorns; and adding more vinegar if the flavor isn’t right. This last one is especially true with vinaigrettes that call for fruit vinegars, such as the popular raspberry vinegar. To boost the flavor of raspberries or other fruit, add a pinch or two of sugar, not more vinegar.
Bay Area Bites: I don’t think many people realize that most “low fat” dressings use sugar and corn syrup to replace the oil they’ve taken out. Do you have suggestions for those looking to use less fat, but who don’t want to turn their salad into the equivalent of a bowl of Lucky Charms?
Jordan: Use less dressing. Most good salads don’t need much (bread salads and potato salads are exceptions). A tablespoon of excellent olive oil and a spritz of citrus or vinegar, along with salt and pepper, are really all you need for a great green salad.
Bay Area Bites: Were you inspired by the salads and/or dressings in any favorite restaurants?
Jordan: I tend to absorb everything I eat and the best influences make it into my own lexicon of cooking. I can’t think of a specific dressing or salad that shaped any of the recipes. However, I did have a wonderful fattoush [a chunky Middle Eastern bread salad] at Baci in Healdsburg last night.
Moroccan Melody: Chermoula
Savory | Tangy | Fragrant | Spicy
Makes about 1 1/4 cups
Chermoula is a traditional condiment found throughout Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco. There are myriad variations—some with tomatoes, some with roasted sweet peppers, some with saffron and ginger—and all are delicious. In Morocco, chermoula is used as both a marinade and a condiment with nearly all types of fish and shellfish. It makes a wonderful dressing for vegetable, bread, potato, or egg salads, as well as salads with mozzarella or burrata. Chermoula will keep up to 2 days in the refrigerator, but it is best the day it is made.
- 3 or 4 garlic cloves, peeled
- Kosher salt
- 1 cup lightly packed fresh cilantro, chopped
- 1/2 cup lightly packed fresh Italian parsley, chopped
- 2 teaspoons sweet paprika, preferably Spanish
- 1 teaspoon hot paprika, preferably Spanish
- 2 teaspoons ground cumin
- 1 teaspoon chipotle chile powder or piment d’Espelette
- Juice of 2 lemons
- 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more to taste
- Put the garlic in a suribachi or mortar, sprinkle lightly with salt, and use a wooden pestle to crush the garlic into a paste. Add the cilantro and parsley and continue to grind with the wooden pestle until a uniform puree is formed. Add both paprikas, cumin, and chipotle powder, and stir in the lemon juice.
- Season with salt and stir in the olive oil. Taste, and correct for salt and acid as needed. Cover and chill; remove from the refrigerator 30 minutes before using.
- PRESERVED LEMON CHERMOULA: Use the juice of a single lemon and add 2 tablespoons minced preserved lemon (commercial or homemade).
- SMOKY CHERMOULA: Replace the sweet paprika and hot paprika with 1 tablespoon smoked paprika.
- FRAGRANT CHERMOULA: Put a generous pinch of saffron threads into a small bowl, add 1 teaspoon hot water, swirl, and let rest for a few minutes. Add the saffron and its liquid and 2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger to the garlic paste before adding the cilantro and parsley.
Carrot salad; zucchini salad; grilled eggplant; sliced tomato and mozzarella salad; fresh greens with burrata; sausage (especially merguez) and bread salad; potato salad; chickpea and rice salad; deviled eggs; summer vegetable soup; grilled chicken or beef.
Recipe © 2013 by Michele Anna Jordan. Reprint by permission of The Harvard Common Press.