Bowl of greens

Not one diet or health fad recommends against eating raw greens.

Ari LeVaux, for Lee Montana Newspapers

When it comes to eating healthy, the importance of a good vinaigrette cannot be overstated.

In the broad spectrum of competing nutritional paradigms to believe in, not one warns against raw leaves. The macronutrient-based approaches to diet, those that favor and shun various combinations of carbohydrate, fat and protein, don’t have any problem with raw leaves. Nor do clans like Paleo or vegan, or fad diets with names too silly to print. Even Dr. Atkins ate leaves.

Raw greens are, if not welcome, at least grudgingly tolerated by every diet. No evidence has surfaced that the intake of edible plant leaves should be limited. Raw greens deliver a broader spectrum of nutrients than cooked, because raw greens are alive, with functioning enzymes and uncooked proteins.

The most negative thing that anybody has ever said about raw leaves is they don’t care to eat them. And cooks respond to it by piling more and more non-leafy material on top. Thus the reason I’ve been saying “raw leaves and greens,” thus far, and not “salad.”

Salad, unfortunately, has become a code word for “whatever you really want to eat on top of plant parts.” With their croutons, dried fruits, spreadable cheese dressings and extra protein options, salads these days are weighted down by the very macronutrients the diet nerds are fighting over, like fats, proteins and carbohydrates.

To be sure, the foliage can’t just run around naked, and here is where many people find themselves in a bind. Bottled salad dressing can be as expensive as is disappointing. Even the fancy ones can have cheap ingredients, or empty oils like soy, canola, corn or safflower. When you dress from a bottle, you dress with stabilizers, preservatives, and sugars like maltodextrin that don’t sound like sugar but are just as bad.

In theory, a good vinaigrette will dress a pile of leaves the way form-fitting clothes will accentuate the shape of a body. In practice, mixing your own oil and vinegar can somehow result in a salad that is less satisfying than bottled Italian. But it doesn’t have to be this way. A sleek vinaigrette will bring out the essence of a leaf without upstaging it. A proper homemade dressing, quite simply, will beat the stuffing out of anything you can buy pre-made, with much better ingredients and a much lower price point, and without the assistance of brewer’s yeast or guar gum.

Here are two vinaigrette recipes that are easy to make and will help turn a pile of leaves into something satisfying. These recipes need to be stirred well and tossed into the salad. You can’t leave it in a bottle on the table and let people dress their own, because it will have separated.

Alternatively one can dip one’s leaves into the dressing, like my wife does. She created these recipes, so she should know. She only tosses it into a salad if we are having company.

If one dips, she advises, use less oil, but replenish it often in the dipping bowl, because the oil will become depleted by coating the thing one is dipping — in her case, a wedge of radicchio.

These recipes use the following three types of ingredient: olive oil, acid, and salt.

Good extra-virgin olive oil. My favorite is California Ranch. It’s cheaper than almost any so-called specialty oils, and superior. Where I shop, Lucini is a comparable Italian option. A fine XVOO will offer its own range of bitterness, and form a bond with the bitterness of the greenery.

Four kinds of acid. Diversity of acid brings complexity, depth of flavor and mystery to a vinaigarette. For these recipes we’ll need apple cider vinegar, balsamic vinegar, and white balsamic vinegar, which also goes by White Modena Vinegar and White Italian Condiment. If white can’t be found, seek another dry vinegar made from white grape, like sherry or Champagne vinegar. The fourth acid is lime or lemon juice.

Sodium. Salt is the most overlooked and easiest to fix pitfall to the marinade maker. These two recipes are distinguished by their use of soy sauce or salt crystals. 

The Soy Sauce Vinaigrette is good for strong tasting leaves. This dressing will smooth the harsh tones and make even the most bitter of greens taste good.

Soy Sauce Vinaigrette 

Ingredients:

2 parts XVOO

1 part soy sauce

1 part vinegar (the vinegar part being an equal mix of apple cider, balsamic and white balsamic)

Mix well, test by dipping a leaf, and adjust the proportions to taste. Toss into a salad and go.

At the risk of sounding Mediterranean diet-ey, olives and feta go great with this salad, and the next. Especially when romaine is used.

The Salt Vinaigrette is a delicate dressing, sleeker than the soy sauce vinaigrette, and good for mild greens, or greens you know you like. It’s for your best greens, in other words, the ones you want to savor.

Salt Vinaigrette

Ingredients:

2 parts olive oil

1 part lime/lemon juice

1 part white balsamic or other dry grapey vinegar

Salt 

For a small salad, try 2 tablespoons VXOO, 1 tablespoon each of lemon/lime and white grape vinegar, and a quarter teaspoon of salt. Toss and serve.

Ari LeVaux writes Flash in the Pan, a syndicated weekly food column carried in more than 60 newspapers nationwide. Though his audience is national, he says he "always writes about Montana. Usually."

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