Better dressing comes from the kitchen

April 20, 1994|By Jim Burns | Jim Burns,Los Angeles Times Syndicate

After a night of tasting, I can tell you few things are as disappointing as the new crop of low-fat salad dressings. They are bland or acrid, smoky or watery, over-sweetened or generally undernourished. In the great fat war, the new battle cry should be, "Give us a better dressing!"

Why dressings, you ask?

Folks who watch their weight know that having a salad for lunch is not a sure-fire way to take off the pounds. The vegetables, of course, are very low in fat, but what about the dressing? A typical vinaigrette is three-quarters oil, one-quarter vinegar and assorted spices. Since 1 tablespoon of oil contains 14 grams of fat, it's not hard to figure out that your diet is shot as soon as the traditional dressing hits the leaves, and then your mouth.

But the problem is what do you do about it? If you are not going to use oil or cheese, what are you going to substitute?

Cookbook writers can go the distance on this one. For example, in "Cooking for Good Health," Gloria Rose suggests a French dressing based on 1 cup of cubed, cooked yams worked over in a food processor. Believe it or not, this is quite a good dressing. There are only two problems: First, who wants to take the time to cook a yam to make dressing? Second, the shelf life of the dressing when refrigerated is only three days.

In the Great Bacon Taste-Off, my able-bodied son, Wiley, 9, and I tried nine dressings in all, divided between traditional cheese-based, and traditional oil-based. This is how they stacked up:

1: Kraft Free Ranch

2: Newman's Own Light Italian

3: Wish-Bone Lite Ranch

4: Hidden Valley Ranch Low Fat Original Ranch

5: Mrs. Pickford's Herb Magic Italian

6: Wish-Bone Lite Italian

7: Kraft Free Italian

8: Weight Watchers Italian Salad Dressing

9: Weight Watchers Creamy Ranch

Many of the dressings I have to fault on appearance and smell. Three of the Italians, Newman's Own, Wish-Bone and Weight Watchers, were overly gelatinous. This leads to a poor "mouth feel" -- how it feels in your mouth. In fact, Newman's Own finished in last place for appearance only. On the other hand, Mrs. Pickford's was so watery you have to wonder how it's going to stay on the lettuce leaves. Kraft Free Italian has a slightly pinkish color that is very unappetizing.

Newman's Own aside, all the other Italian dressings smelled acrid and hostile, like old pickles that have been in the refrigerator too long. And what is this smoky flavor in low-fat Italian dressings? I detected it in Mrs. Pickford's and in Weight Watchers. If this is meant to be a flavor substitute, my palate says, "Back to the drawing board."

Since three out of four of the top finishers were ranch style, I would have to say that creamy dressings are more successful in their low-fat incarnations than oil-based dressings. Of course, this could also be because I prefer the creamy.

In my tasting notes, I described Kraft Free Ranch as "nice and thick with a pleasant smell," and said that it was "sweet with lettuce" and "flavorful and complex."

One thing is clear, however, is the nutrition. For 1 tablespoon, the highest fat and calories went to Wish-Bone Lite Ranch with 4 grams of fat and 45 calories. Mrs. Pickford's and Kraft Free Italian tied for lowest with no fat and 4 calories.

But let's put a little flavor back into dressings. Sure, you could just douse your salad with a flavored vinegar and forget the oil, or squeeze lemon juice over your greens, but I think there is a more flavorful way. The following two recipes from the Culinary Institute of America's excellent book/video series, "Techniques of Healthy Cooking," should be a thrill for those who have been stuck using bottled dressings only.

Vinaigrette-style dressing

Makes 1 quart

2 cups chicken stock

2 1/2 teaspoons arrowroot

1 cup red wine vinegar

1 cup extra virgin olive oil

3/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup fresh basil, chopped

Bring stock to boil. Remove from heat. Dilute arrowroot in some cold water or stock. Gradually incorporate diluted arrowroot into stock, and cook and stir over low heat just until mixture is thick enough to lightly coat spoon. Allow stock to cool.

Whip vinegar and oil into mixture. Add salt and basil to taste. Dressing may be used at this point or refrigerated up to 1 week.

Each 1-ounce serving contains approximately 50 calories; 50 milligrams sodium; 0 milligrams cholesterol; 5 grams fat; 90 percent calories from fat; 0 grams carbohydrate; 0 grams protein; 0 grams fiber.

To lower the percentage of calories from fat, you might experiment and cut back even more on the oil.

Creamy-style dressing

Makes about 1 1/2 cups

1/2 cup part-skim ricotta cheese

1 cup plain, nonfat yogurt

1/4 cup red wine vinegar

1/4 cup chives, finely chopped

Puree ricotta cheese in food processor or blender until smooth. Add yogurt and vinegar and process until fully incorporated. Transfer mixture to bowl. Mix in chives.

Each 3/4 -ounce serving contains approximately: 20 calories; 20 milligrams sodium; 2 milligrams cholesterol; 1 gram fat; 45 percent calories from fat; 2 grams carbohydrate; 2 grams protein; 0 grams fiber.

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