Leafy greens, luscious ripe tomatoes, crisp bits of red onion, sliced bell pepper, crumbled bacon, toasty croutons -- the list of tasty ingredients for a satisfying salad is as long as a summer evening. You've assembled it all and now you realize you could blow the whole idea of a skinny salad with a sugary dressing. Whether you are avoiding sugar because of a medical condition or just on general principal, making your own dressing is an easy, quick way to skip the sugar while exercising your culinary creativity. There was a time when drab-tasting oil and transparent red vinegar just rested on the table in cruets, waiting to be poured over lettuce. Then came the dark and mysterious balsamic vinegar, galloping to the rescue of bored palates, with the demure extra-virgin olive oil trailing right behind. Making a vinaigrette dressing with just these two ingredients is easy enough; whisk them together -- pour the oil into the vinegar in a thin stream -- with some salt and pepper until the mixture emulsifies and looks like, well, salad dressing. It works with all kinds of oils and vinegars, so experiment with different taste combinations. The basic rule of thumb for proportions is 4 parts oil to 1 part vinegar. Or, as Nonna might say, "Be a piker with the vinegar and a spendthrift with the oil." Brighten up the taste with fresh herbs, minced shallots or a dollop of grainy mustard.
Forgo the whisk entirely and shake your vinaigrette in a glass jar. Make a bigger batch and store it in the fridge so it's ready when you are. Some salads call out for a creamy dressing but many recipes include mayonnaise, which nearly always contains sugar. Homemade mayo is surprisingly easy to make by combining an egg yolk with a couple of tablespoons of lemon juice and a teaspoon of Dijon mustard; then, slowly whisk or blend in a cup of oil. Blend it up with watercress, dill, green onions, basil, yogurt and a dash of pepper sauce for a zippy herb dressing; or with avocado, herbs and a touch of anchovy for a Green Goddess dressing. You can use it to create a fake blue cheese dressing, but making the real thing just means combining that wonderfully stinky cheese with buttermilk, sour cream, chives and a little lemon juice. If ranch is your thing, whisk the mayo with buttermilk and sour cream.
Making your mayo with half sesame oil and half olive oil creates an Asian salad dressing base that also works as an offbeat potato salad dressing. Bottled Caesar dressing is bound to have sugar but it's really not necessary. You can make your own sugar-free version, but it's even easier to make it the old-fashioned way right at the dinner table. Tear up a head of romaine lettuce and squeeze the juice of a whole lemon over it. Sprinkle a cup of grated Parmesan cheese over the lettuce and then break a coddled egg -- a room-temperature egg that's been sitting in very hot water for 2 minutes -- over the cheesed lettuce. Whisk a few minced garlic cloves, a dash of Worcestershire and a couple of squeezes of anchovy paste into 3 or 4 tablespoons of olive oil and pour the mixture over the cheesed lettuce. Toss the whole thing and serve with croutons -- preferably homemade. Keep the pepper grinder handy.