I was sent to school most mornings with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in my backpack. Some days it was ham and mustard. There were also grapes, carrot sticks, and miniature bags of my favorite chips. On rare occasions, a paper ticket was placed in my pocket instead, and come lunchtime I traded it for a plastic tray which I promptly slid across the metal grates toward the salad bar.
I wasn’t a particularly adventurous eater growing up. It wasn’t for my mother’s lack of trying either. Pasta, flavored yogurt, and Little Caesar’s pizza were practically my food groups, and I had a deep, involuntary weakness for ranch dressing.
On these lunch ticket days, I filled my plate with ladles of herb-studded ranch dressing and a mound of miniature, square-shaped croutons. Sitting at a picnic table with my friends, we talked about soccer games and sitcoms as one by one, I dunked a crouton into the dressing and triumphantly crunched it between my teeth.
Inhaling the scent of powdered, dried garlic this summer has reminded me of the many fond memories I have of this beloved condiment. But in the past two decades, my relationship with food has drastically changed; and as I learned both to cook and about the origins of my food, I’ve made choices that have all but eliminated most of the ingredients peppered throughout my childhood.
No longer content to eat ranch dressing from a bottle or a dried herb packet, I’ve sought to make it myself. Garlic, of course, is necessary.
Because garlic bulbs grew in ancient Egypt—cloves seasoned meals in Asia, and crates filled with its parchment-thin skins traveled on trade routes across countries and centuries—it is difficult to talk about garlic without talking about human history in the same breath. Greek and Roman soldiers ate it, and garlic was used as an antiseptic to prevent gangrene during the World Wars. Garlic, quite simply, has endured.
And when you grow up in an Italian-American family, garlic permeates your life. It is slathered on a golden crust of garlic bread at a favorite restaurant, mixed with beef and herbs for meatballs, and sits on the counter like some kind of beacon, guiding your hand toward the bowl for one more clove to toss into the pot.
As an ingredient, garlic is a sturdy foundation for numerous dishes. It rarely asks for attention on its own, unless it’s being roasted whole or serving as the base of chicken with no less than 40 cloves. Garlic’s pulverized cousin, granulated garlic, is not so much a substitute for fresh, rather a preference used for instances that call for a less assertive bite.
In the case of my beloved ranch dressing, granulated garlic is a balancer and a backbone, boosting flavor while still being subtle enough not to overpower the other ingredients it’s paired with. Its raw heat fades a bit when ground to a powder and instead of stealing the spotlight, contributes gracefully to a handful of other ingredients, creating a most nostalgic recipe.
Little Gem BLT Salad With Buttermilk Ranch Dressing
When composing a salad, the most important thing (besides using the best seasonal ingredients) is to have a balance of textures and flavors. Crunchy croutons, tender lettuce, sweet tomatoes and salty bacon make for a perfect summer spin on a classic BLT sandwich.
Although jarred mayonnaise will suffice, homemade mayonnaise is worth the extra step here. It’s silky with a mild flavor that doesn’t overshadow the herbs and spices. I always use Julia’s Child recipe, taking care to warm the bowl as she suggests, and whisking until my arm hurts. The mayonnaise will keep in the fridge for three days.
- 2 cups torn country bread
- 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
- Salt, to taste
- 2 slices thick-cut bacon, sliced into ¼-inch lardons
- 2 heads little gem lettuce, chopped (about 1 pound)
- ½ cup cherry tomatoes, halved
- ½ cup cooked quinoa
- Freshly cracked pepper
- Buttermilk ranch dressing (recipe follows)
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Place the torn bread on a sheet pan and drizzle with the olive oil and a pinch of salt. Massage with your hands until well coated. Bake 15 to 20 minutes, or until golden.
While the croutons bake, heat a cast iron pan over medium-low heat. Add the bacon and cook slowly, stirring occasionally, until most of the fat has rendered out, about 5 minutes. Keep an eye on things; there’s a brief window between perfectly crisp and burned. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside.
To arrange the salad, place the lettuce in a large bowl and scatter the croutons, tomatoes, quinoa and reserved bacon around the perimeter. Season the greens with a pinch of salt and several grinds of freshly cracked pepper. Begin drizzling dressing over the lettuce; toss and add more dressing as needed (between ½ cup to ¾ cup total) until the leaves are well coated but not soggy.
Buttermilk Ranch Dressing
Makes about 1 cup
- ½ cup homemade mayonnaise
- ½ cup Greek yogurt
- ¼ cup buttermilk
- 1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon granulated garlic
- ¼ teaspoon granulated onion
- A few grinds of freshly cracked pepper
- Pinch of cayenne
- 2 tablespoons minced chives
- 1 tablespoon minced parsley
Whisk the mayonnaise, yogurt and buttermilk in a small bowl until well mixed. Add the vinegar, salt, garlic, onion, freshly cracked pepper and a pinch of cayenne; stir to combine. Gently fold in the chives and parsley. Pour into a glass mason jar and chill for at least 2 hours so the flavors can blend. Shake vigorously before pouring over your salad.