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The first job I ever had was in a restaurant that practiced the time-honored tradition of family meal. In the lull after our final seating, and before the kitchen truly broke down, we'd all cram around a little table in the break room and dig into whatever had turned up on the menu that day, a veritable merry-go-round of retro Americana. The only constant was the house salad, a tangle of mixed greens and fresh fruit dressed with a creamy, zippy poppy seed vinaigrette, the tartness of lemon juice and buttermilk balanced by just a bit of sugar.
I used to smuggle it home in a Styrofoam cup, like some sort of dressing mule. My addiction to its toasty, sweet flavor was probably the only thing getting nutrients into my system at a time when my diet consisted of little more than Pop-Tarts and SnackPack. Maybe it's nostalgia for those summer days when I first settled into the rhythms of restaurant life, or the fact that lemon and poppy seed is a combo pulled straight from the pastry chef's playbook, but it's still my favorite dressing today.
Now that I've gotten into the habit of keeping a bottle of my Fresh Lemon Syrup on hand, it's even easier to make, because I don't have to shake a jar of this vinaigrette till my arm falls off while I wait for the sugar to dissolve. And, since my technique uses the power of the citric acid in lemon rinds to dissolve the sugar, it's far less watery and sweet than simple syrup, giving the dressing more body and aroma. That makes for a particularly creamy dressing.
Almost any salad oil will do, but if you're feeling fancy, pistachio is great. It's a change of pace from standard olive oil, and its signature flavor gives the poppy seeds a lovely boost. That said, there's no reason to snub neutral, workaday oils that bring the dressing's lighter, lemony notes to the fore; my favorite is safflower, which is free from the fishy odors I associate with canola.
If you're thinking that there's not a lot of oil in the above photo, you're right. Unlike vinegar or straight fruit juice, buttermilk and lemon syrup are thick and mild enough to constitute the bulk of the dressing without watering it down or making it aggressively acidic (and, balanced with a judicious amount of sugar, they're none too sweet). There's nothing to stop you from using more oil if you prefer a classic 3:1 ratio. In any event, the buttermilk and syrup are powerful emulsifiers that allow the dressing to come together with the twirl of a spoon; no whisking, shaking, or processing required.
Offset by an appropriately thick and tangy base, the real stars of the show are poppy seeds—delicately crisp and nutty. Stale poppy seeds are little more than organic sprinkles, flavorless but cute, so ditch the stale jar of crap you picked up at the supermarket. Fresh poppy seeds are a thing of beauty, and way more affordable online. My favorite brand is Sincerely Nuts, which are sold unwashed to preserve their natural flavor. And, uh, watch out if you're due for a drug test; the urban legends are true.
The result is a refreshingly simple summer dressing that's rich enough to turn a salad into a meal, but light enough to serve as the counterpart to the heavier fare that turns up at cookouts and barbecues. It works well with any sort of salad green, particularly blends that include arugula, but my nostalgia for those family meals of yore almost always compels me to include some sort of fruit, like ripe mango.
With a bottle of fresh lemon syrup at the ready, I can't resist adding a handful of Crispy Lemon Candied Pistachios, too, but trust me when I say this dressing is nutty enough to stand on its own.