“Creamy,” said my friend Luci Brieger, when I asked how her summer was going. Creamy has many meanings at her farm, Lifeline Produce in Montana’s Bitterroot Valley, all of them good, all of them rooted in Brieger’s creamy salad dressing, also known as “Creamy,” which tastes like what might happen if Caesar dressing had a love child with a bottle of ranch.
For decades, Brieger’s kitchen has provided the perfect environment for Creamy to evolve and flourish, thanks to the parade of delicious vegetables to put Creamy on, like romaine, cabbage, cauliflower, peas, love, happiness. They all wear Creamy like a tailored suit. But romaine is special. “I only have eyes for romaine,” she says. “I’m a uni-lettuce type of gal.”
Creamy vinaigrette salad dressing long predates Brieger or her farm. While some recipes for vinaigrette call for sour cream or yogurt, Brieger’s Creamy does not contain actual cream, which would curdle on contact with the lemon juice. While Creamy is dairy-free, Brieger regularly customizes it with dairy, including yogurt, buttermilk and grated cheese, depending on what else gets added to the romaine.
Mayonnaise is not just the main ingredient in Creamy, but also its patron saint. “It’s the mortar of life,” her husband, Steve Elliot, once told me, with a gentle, paternal tone. Through the artifice of emulsion, mayonnaise achieves its smooth, creamy flavor despite not containing any actual dairy materials. That creamy magic is passed along to the Creamy (or anything else) to which it is added. That magic, in turn, is passed along to whatever is touched by Creamy.
To say something is creamy is to say, in so many words, that it’s summertime, and the living is easy. The leaves are fresh, the Creamy is creamy, and things are as they should be. The centrality of creamy to quality of farm life makes it more than an adjective named after a salad dressing, but a way to eat vegetables, and a way of life.
That’s why Elliott laughed deeply, straight from the bottom of his belly to my phone, when I called to ask Brieger how to make Creamy.
“She doesn’t even know how to make it,” Elliott said, when he’d partially recovered. “She has that innate sense, and I’m not sure how to teach that. She just acts, stream of consciousness, like the Jack Kerouac of Creamy.”
Brieger is wiry, with a dark ponytail, wide peripheral vision and a persona that lacks nonsense. She contends daily with a parade of kids, farm help, visitors and other “random people” who, if the coast is clear, will dart across the kitchen, open the fridge and scan for Creamy; once located, they will search for substrate.
“When they see leftover Creamy in the fridge, they put it on bread or other stuff,” Brieger says. “Or they dip stuff in it. I frown on that.”
For all its absolute perfection, Creamy is a fluid, shape-shifting sauce, as much a process and sensibility as a formula. Like a jazz musician adjusting his groove to the other players, virtuoso salad dressing makers like Brieger will adjust their art to fit the context.
The recipe below is for the core essence of Creamy. After the recipe I list some of Brieger’s favorite adjustments. But ultimately, it’s up to you to learn the ways of Creamy, by feeling the flavor, and intuiting where it needs to be.
“Don’t get bogged down in the details,” Elliot offers. “And pay attention.”
The basic creamy is meant to dress what passes for the House Salad at Lifeline Produce. Made of romaine, cucumber, sweet onions and fresh dill.
2-4 cloves fresh garlic (about 15 grams if we’re being exact. Or to taste.)
1 teaspoon salt
½ cup lemon or lime juice or white balsamic
2 teaspoon grated lemon zest
1 squeezed section of lemon, peel, pulp and all
1 teaspoon dry mustard powder
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
½ cup mayo (or Vegenaise, which Brieger and I both prefer)
About the same amount of olive oil
Combine ingredients in a blender, food processor or in a bowl under a submersion blender. Whizz the dressing until, as Brieger puts it, “the texture pleases me.” In plain speak, that would be an emulsion, smooth, thick and, well, creamy.
Basic Romaine Salad
1 large or 2 small heads romaine, chopped crosswise into inch-wide ribbons
½ sweet onion, thinly sliced
1 cucumber, thinly sliced
½ cup fresh dill or cilantro, chopped
Variations on Creamy
After years of working with Creamy, Brieger has come up with ways to customize it. Whatever version she makes, the one constant across all of her summer salads is romaine.
When Brieger makes a mid-summer basil Creamy, she skips the Worcestershire sauce and mustard, so the flavor doesn’t get too busy. She adds just a handful of basil leaves; you don’t want it to taste like pesto. Rather, you want an aromatic, slightly greenish Creamy.
For Caesarean Creamy, Brieger adds anchovy paste, parmesan cheese, capers and fresh ground black pepper to the dressing, and croutons to the salad. This time of year, a piece of fresh salmon goes well atop a Creamy Caesar, or any creamy salad.
When Brieger makes her fabled Pea & Mutton Salad, she replaces half the mayo with whole milk yogurt, adds mint, a little curry powder and grated cheddar to the dressing. To the salad, she adds shelled peas and the remains of a tough piece of meat that has been browned to deliciousness and braised into submission.
Flash in the Pan is food writer Ari LeVaux’s weekly recipe column. It runs in about 100 newspapers nationwide, nourishing food sections large and small with complete protein for the belly brain.