“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 her creamy salad dressing, aka “Creamy,” which tastes like what might happen if Caesar dressing had a love child with a bottle of ranch.
Luci 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 will, if the coast is clear, 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,” Luci said. “Or they dip stuff in it. I frown on that.”
Creamy vinaigrette long predates Luci or her farm. Some recipes call for sour cream or yogurt, but Luci’s does not contain actual cream, which would curdle on contact with the lemon juice.
The main ingredient in Creamy—and also its patron saint—is mayonnaise. “It’s the mortar of life,” Luci’s husband Steve Elliott once told me, with a gentle, paternal tone. Through the artifice of emulsion, mayonnaise achieves a smooth, creamy texture and flavor despite not containing any actual dairy. That creamy magic is passed along to the Creamy (or anything else) to which it is added, which, in turn, passes the magic along to whatever it touches.
But when I called to ask Luci how to make her famed dressing, Steve laughed deeply, straight from the bottom of his belly to my phone.
“She doesn’t even know how to make it,” he 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.”
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 Luci will adjust their art to fit the context. For decades, her kitchen has provided the perfect environment for Creamy to evolve and flourish, thanks to the parade of delicious vegetables to put it on—romaine, cabbage, cauliflower, peas, love, happiness. They all wear Creamy like a tailored suit.
“Don’t get bogged down in the details,” Steve offered. “And pay attention.”
The recipe here is for the core essence of Creamy. After the recipe I list some of Luci’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.
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.
Luci’s Creamy Salad
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.
For the Creamy Dressing
- 2 to 4 cloves fresh garlic (about 15 grams if we’re being exact, or to taste)
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 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
- 1/2 cup mayo (or Vegenaise, which Luci and I both prefer)
- About the same amount of olive oil
For the Romaine Salad
- 1 large or 2 small heads romaine, chopped crosswise into inch-wide ribbons
- 1/2 sweet onion, thinly sliced
- 1 cucumber, thinly sliced
- 1/2 cup fresh dill or cilantro, chopped
Combine dressing ingredients in a blender, food processor, or a bowl under a submersion blender. Whizz the dressing until, as Luci puts it, “the texture pleases me.” In plain speak, that would be an emulsion—smooth, thick, and, well, creamy. Toss with salad ingredients.
Variations on Creamy
After years of working with Creamy, Luci has come up with ways to customize it. Whatever version she makes, the one constant across all of her summer salads is romaine. (“I only have eyes for romaine,” she says. “I’m a uni-lettuce type of gal.”)
When Luci 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, Luci 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.
When Luci makes her fabled pea and mutton salad, she replaces half the mayo with whole milk yogurt and adds mint, a little curry powder, and grated cheddar. 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.