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Croutons, Salad Dressing to Make at Home

Of all the elements in a meal, salad -- specifically salad dressing -- often receives the least attention. On numerous occasions when dining at friends' homes, I have been served green salads tossed with a throat-scorching, overly vinegared combination; a bland blend that tastes mostly of olive oil; or worse: cloying, sugared-up commercial dressing.

I suppose you can become accustomed to these and never realize what you are missing, but you don't have to. Preparing terrific dressings at home, in less than 5 minutes, is much easier than you think.

To be sure, time-pressed working couples may find even this too much effort at the end of a long day. I get around it by preparing big batches on weekends and storing them in wine bottles or mason jars. It couldn't be easier.

Start with the font of all dressings, the classic French vinaigrette. The challenge here is to strike the proper balance among acid (vinegar, lemon juice, etc.), sweetness (olive oil, or other ingredients), and heat (mustard, black pepper, hot pepper). As in everything culinary, the better the ingredients, the more flavorful the results.

A basic green salad for four calls for about 1 1/2 teaspoons mustard, 2 to 3 tablespoons oil, 1 tablespoon vinegar, and salt and pepper. With a small whisk, blend all ingredients except the oil -- the ingredients should be totally incorporated and smooth. Then drizzle in the oil while continuing to whisk. Keep in mind that salad dressings, like handmade guitars, are never exactly alike, even if the components are the same. Taste as you go along.

Once you learn to make vinaigrette, the possibilities are endless, especially in summer when fresh herbs are available. Don't be afraid to experiment. Miscalculations can be remedied by adding more oil and vinegar. In the off-season, you might have to resort to dried herbs, which is fine. Keep in mind that dried herbs are concentrated because the water has evaporated. This leaves them twice as potent as fresh. A lovely imported mixture of dried herbs called Herbes de Provence (sold in a small clay crock), is widely available in gourmet markets.

At this time of year, consider flavoring the dressing with fresh tarragon, thyme, rosemary, mint, chervil, cilantro, dill and parsley -- or any combination. Some of the herbed olive oils on the market from France, Italy and California are very good but they can be expensive.

A word about garlic. In certain anaerobic environments, garlic, like room-temperature olive oil, can generate botulism. This derives not from the garlic itself, but from tiny fragments of soil that cling to the surface even after it is rubbed clean. Vinaigrettes should pose no problem because the acid in them -- lemon or vinegar -- prevents the growth of bacteria.

The recipes below can be modified in numerous ways. For a softer, less acidic-tasting vinaigrette, substitute rice vinegar or cider vinegar. For a nice, sweet edge, the balsamic vinegars found in supermarkets, while not authentic -- the real thing, from Modena in Italy, fetches $100 or more for a perfume-bottle size -- add a pleasant sweetness.

These recipes get much of their flavor by steeping herbs in warm olive oil to release their flavors. This can be done ahead of time and the mixture refrigerated in a sealed container. A vinaigrette-style dressing can last more than a month, if refrigerated; dairy-based mixtures should be used in a couple of weeks.

The yield for these recipes is enough to fill a standard 750-milliliter wine bottle. If you go through a lot of dressing, make more, even double it (if you do, add about two-thirds of the herbs used in the original recipe), and pour it into a mason jar.

Now, if you can prepare a great salad dressing, why not make your own croutons? Boxed croutons are generally very salty and loaded with additives. When you consider that croutons are nothing more than seasoned toasted bread, why squander money buying them? I make quick croutons by cutting a stale French baguette (you can do this with other breads as well) into roughly 3/4-inch cubes.

In a frying pan over medium heat, saute about 4 tablespoons of olive oil with 2 coarsely chopped garlic cloves and dried herbs of choice for about 1 minute (do not let the garlic darken). Add bread cubes to the pan and toss to coat. Sprinkle them onto a cookie sheet, season with salt and pepper, and bake in a 325-degree oven until lightly browned, about 2 minutes (it varies depending on the type of bread). They are great in salads and soups. Store, covered, in a refrigerator for 2 to 3 weeks.

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Bryan Miller