Kitchen Intuition: Tahini sauce

Authored By aliceodea

A couple of people got me thinking about both winter salads and tahini dressing this week. First, I ran across an image of a simple kale and chickpea salad that was so pretty I had to try it. It was a quick, easy prep and made for a delicious and nutritious main dish salad, but the thing that really jumped out at me was the tahini dressing. It’s thick, warm, creamy and mellow-an ideal comfort food on a cold evening in the middle of winter-and incredibly easy to make. No cooking is required! Just combine and stir or whisk until smooth.

A few days later, I ran across Joe Yonan‘s ode to the winter salad, and there it was again! Only this time, the tahini dressing was a simpler version, and it was drizzled over a salad that included steaming chunks of soft, roasted butternut squash. I didn’t have any pomegranate seeds, but I did have everything else, so I gave in to the compulsion and made a version for dinner. It was fantastic (and made for great leftovers).

This served as a reminder that this is, in fact, a great time of year for salads. Hearty and delicious greens-like escarole, frisée, endive, watercress-grow in cooler weather and can be eaten either raw or cooked. I’m getting plenty of classic winter greens-like collards, chard, kale, mustard greens and bok choy-in my winter CSA share with Tant Hill Farm, and they all can be cooked up into a delicious, warm winter salad.

I perused some cookbooks (and the Google), keeping an eye out for other inspiring winter salad ideas and saw a lot of combinations of veggies like beets, cabbage, eggplant and cauliflower, with bursts of flavor provided by add-ons like olives, grapefruit, currants, pine nuts and anchovies, often served over beds of rice, quinoa or other grains. And one of my favorite discoveries was a lovely and straightforward leeks vinaigrette in “The Art of Simple Food” by Alice Waters.

But more than anything else, I played around with the tahini dressing, which is simply a variety of vinaigrette where the fat and flavor come from the tahini (ground sesame seed paste) and the acid from citrus juice. It can be as simple as that and used warm as a topping for meat or vegetables, or thinned and cooled as a salad dressing. It also makes a great dip or spread (add some chickpeas and you’ve got hummus). The version Yonan used on his winter salad added little more than a taste of garlic, but there are plenty of possibilities for making your own version with other embellishments.

If you do want to add garlic, you can use minced or crushed cloves, but if you want your dressing to have a really creamy texture, you should roast the garlic. In the first recipe I mentioned, the author suggests speeding up the roasting process by separating the cloves. I tried it and the results were fine, but I still prefer roasting the whole heads; then the cloves just pop right out of the skins and I don’t have to fight with them. I’ll cook a whole bunch at one time and then put most of the roasted cloves in the freezer, so it’s handy and ready to go whenever I need some.

There are other flavors to consider adding to your tahini dressing/sauce. Most recipes call for lemon juice, but you could substitute or supplement with rice or balsamic vinegar, and orange or lime juice. It’s fine to use nothing but tahini, but for an added depth of flavor, you could also add other fats, like sesame oil (plain or toasted) or olive oil.

To deepen the character of your dressing further, consider adding soy sauce, tamari, cilantro, parsley or minced scallions. For added spice, put in some freshly grated ginger, red pepper flakes, curry spices, cumin, cinnamon, cayenne pepper, dill or hot sauce. In some situations, it might be nice for the dressing to have a hint of sweetness, which can come from a bit of maple syrup, honey or agave nectar. And finally, if you need to thin it out, you could use water, or you might prefer almond milk, coconut milk, yogurt or miso instead.

I think I’ll continue to tinker with the formula and also experiment with what I might pour the tahini dressing over. It’s a cozy sauce for these chilly days, but I can also thin it out when the weather gets warm again for lighter salads and dishes.

Alice O’Dea has lived in Chattanooga for over 20 years, but was raised among the mucks and dairy farms in rural western New York. She didn’t really learn to cook until midlife. When she’s not puttering around in the kitchen, she enjoys running, cycling, traveling, photography and trying to get food to grow in the backyard of her Highland Park home. You can email her with questions, suggestions or comments at [email protected]. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not or its employees.