Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Not So Secret Ingredients

I used to work at a restaurant. I started out as a hostess and eventually became a server after working there for a year or so. This restaurant was an upscale steakhouse, one of the nicer ones in my college town. Everything on the menu was and I imagine still is delicious. When you start working at a restaurant, there is usually some sort of menu test you must pass before you are able to start. The menu test for this particular place was incredibly involved but very straight forward: memorize the menu. I remember being handed a packet of papers with just the names of every item on the menu. It was up to me to fill out a complete and thorough description of each dish along with the restaurant's abbreviation to put on the ticket to give to the kitchen. For example:

A Mediterranean blend of kalamata olives, French beans, grape tomatoes, cucumbers, mushrooms, pine nuts and feta cheese, served over a bed of fresh baby field greens and spinach tossed with herb-vinaigrette (abbreviation: MED)

We had to know everything about the food and drinks, from the big entrees to the appetizers to the desserts all the way down to the ingredients in the salad dressings. We had to know that the Caesar Salad dressing was eggless and that the cows the steaks came from had been corn-fed. And this was just to become a hostess.

It was a huge hassle to have to memorize all these things at the time. However, I cannot say that I am disappointed I was made to do it. The first reason for that is it made my job a whole lot easier. I didn't have to refer to a menu every time I took a to-go order over the phone, and it made the transition to becoming a server very smooth. The second and much more important reason I am glad I had to know all these things was it inspired my next recipe.

The only thing I remember about the Balsamic Vinaigrette dressing was the abbreviation, "BV" and the fact that one of the ingredients was either dijon mustard or honey mustard...I cannot even remember exactly which one. When my sister-in-law showed how she makes her own balsamic vinaigrette dressing by shaking balsamic vinegar, olive oil, and a packet of splenda together in a bottle, it got me experimenting. I started trying to make my very own creamier version of this dressing. I went through a bunch of random-seeming ingredients to make this work until I remembered the secret ingredient in the best Balsamic dressing I have ever had: mustard. Since I happened to have some dijon mustard on hand ,magic was made that night. I still felt something was missing so I continued experimenting until I found my own even more secret ingredient: lebne (also spelled "Labne", "Labneh" or sometimes called "kefir cheese"). It is a type of Middle Eastern yogurt cheese that comes in a tub and has a consistency slightly thicker than sour cream. My dad used to buy this yogurt from a small Lebanese grocery store when I was younger, and we would eat it by dipping pita bread in it. It is really flavorful and a nice alternative to sour cream or cream cheese. It goes well on toast, in sandwiches, and with veggies (instead of ranch dressing) so it is worth having a tub hanging out in your refridgerator.

All of these ingredients made their way into this recipe from different places:

Tossed Salad Balsamic (for your tossed salad):

1/4 C Balsamic Vinegar
1/4 C Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 small packet of Splenda (or any artificial sweetener)
1 tbsp dijon mustard (you can try honey mustard for a sweeter BV dressing)
1 tbsp Lebne*

*You can find lebne in any middle eastern grocery stores. Otherwise you can substitute plain yogurt (found in the dairy section of any grocery store).

Put all ingredients in a large bowl and whisk thoroughly until blended just before serving over salad. It may be even easier to put all the ingredients in a bottle, secure the lid and shake 'em up.

This dressing will go with any type of salad (like the one pictured above). I like my Balsamic dressing a little thicker than a vinaigrette and slightly sweet, but you should definitely play around with the ingredients and add more or less of things based on preference.

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