Holding up a plastic bottle of store-bought ranch dressing, Scott McCandless does what many consumers fail to do.
He reads the label.
As he lists ingredients in the order they appear – vegetable oil, water, egg yolk, sugar, salt, cultured nonfat buttermilk, natural flavors – listeners’ faces begin to fall.
Phosporic acid, xanthum gum, modified food starch, monsodium glutamate, articificial flavors, disodium phosphate, sorbic acid, disodium inosinate, disodium guanylate.
McCandless stumbles over the pronunciation of some of these additives, used as flavor enhancers and preservatives. But he doesn’t mince words when he admonishes his guests.
His message is clear and simple: “Don’t buy packaged salad dressings.”
McCandless – owner of Spokane’s Clover restaurant as well as nearly 40 Subway and Papa Murphy’s franchises – wants people to make their own at home.
“It’s easy. It’s fun. It’s economical. It tastes better. And, it’s your body.”
McCandless considers it his personal mission to change the way people eat as, he likes to say, “one plate at a time.” To that end, he created and continues to teach a Salad Dressing 101 class along with Soup 101 and another workshop on barbecue sauces, brines and rubs.
He generally holds one of each per season, or three or four of each per year. Salad Dressing 101 is most popular. It regularly sells out.
This time of year, so does the soup class. The Oct. 26 session is already sold out, but there’s room in the Nov. 2 offering, which runs from 6 to 8 p.m. at the company headquarters: Conversion Concepts, 608 N. Argonne Road in Spokane Valley.
“He keeps it so approachable and doable,” said business partner Marta Harrington. “You walk away with something you could immediately do at home.”
McCandless – who also owns Spokane’s Edible Arrangements and the new Bellacrosta Bakery and Fine Foods commercial baking operation in Spokane Valley and storefront in Liberty Lake – held his first salad dressing class four years ago. He added the barbecue workshop a year later and started soups in 2015.
During the salad dressing class, McCandless demonstrates five recipes. He starts with a Greek yogurt-tarragon dressing and continues to blueberry vinaigrette. Each includes a tasting.
“You get that (blueberry vinaigrette) on some king salmon and bellissimo!” McCandless told his most recent class, held mid-September at the new Bellacrosta cafe in Liberty Lake.
The $40 tuition includes snacks: Bellacrosta bread, extra-virgin olive oil (regular and basil-infused), pepper-cheese spread. Participants get to take home a salad dressing of their choice as well as a small bottle of the olive oil brand McCandless sells at the café and uses exclusively in the salad dressings at Clover.
One of his tenets to creating good salad dressing: “Start with good ingredients.”
McCandless encourages home cooks to “use the best” – and use less. “In America, we’re about value. We’re about quantity. In Italy” – and, “most of Europe,” he said – “it’s about quality and small amounts.”
To prove this point, he serves what he calls “the ultimate dessert,” or a scoop of vanilla ice cream drizzled with balsamic vinegar – not just any balsamic vinegar, but balsamic vinegar that’s been aged 30 years. He also serves that pepper-cheese spread, made in-house with one of his favorite Pacific Northwest products: Mama Lil’s Mildly Spicy Peppers in Oil.
His class includes a side-by-side comparison of commonly used olive oil, red-wine vinegar and pepper next to the brands McCandless prefers. When it comes to olive oil, McCandless opts for Sciabica from California.
Participants also get to sample of Clover’s candied pecans, which typically top salads at the restaurant. They’re boiled in simple syrup with a kiss of cayenne, then deep-fried and coated with cinnamon-sugar and a little more cayenne.
“We refer to them at the office as crack,” McCandless said.
‘Homemade and natural’
He grew up in Gilroy, California, the self-proclaimed garlic capital of the world. “We used to joke that when we bought a steak we didn’t need to marinate; we just needed to hang it out the window on the ride home,” McCandless said.
Today, he loves to use garlic, shallots and fruit to flavor his dressings. The blueberries in his vinaigrette recipe can be switched out for other ingredients: raspberries, cherries, watermelon, pear. The method is the same: boil down the fruit or berries, then strain and further reduce.
To brighten it up, he adds citrus. To sweeten it up, he uses carrots.
“The whole point here is to demystify salad dressings,” McCandless said. “You don’t need fancy equipment.”
He uses a stand or immersion blender. Sometimes, his wife, Liz, helps. After the blueberry vinaigrette, she assists him in making a classic ranch dressing. When he reads the ingredients of a well-known brand, one participant asks, “What does that even mean?”
McCandless answers with a personal anecdote. In 2000, before switching to scratch-made dressings, sauces and soups, he said his “bad” cholesterol measured 210 milligrams per deciliter, way past the 100 to 129 milligrams recommended by Mayo Clinic. Today, he said, it’s 132.
“That’s the power of going homemade and natural,” he said. “It’s that strong.”
‘Better than the bottle’
It is more healthful to make dressings – and sauces and soups – from scratch, agreed registered dietician Terry Perry, the new director of kitchen programs of Second Harvest in Spokane and a board member of the Greater Spokane Dietetic Association.
“Many salad dressings purchased at the grocery store are high in calories, sodium and additives,” Perry said. “If you are going to take the time prepare a fresh salad, it only takes a few minutes to finish with a delicious homemade dressing. Homemade dressings are tastier and healthier all around.”
Small-batch dressings generally don’t require preservatives, Perry said.
Plus, “Preparing salad dressings at home gives you control over what ingredients go into your salad dressing,” Perry said. “You can choose healthier oils like olive or avocado oil. You can reduce sodium by adding herbs, spices, flavored vinegars and fresh lemon and lime. If you like a sweet dressing, you can use fruit juice or honey or even fresh fruit.”
If he’s whipping up a salad at home to pair with steak, McCandless said he would combine button mushrooms, endive, radicchio, romaine and cheddar, then dress the mixture with a red-wine vinaigrette.
“Here’s what I do: the sweeter the dressing, the more bitter the lettuces,” he said.
He’s also a fan of San Marzano tomatoes, fennel, jicama, daikon radish, roasted corn on the cob and Parmigiano-Reggiano – “none of that stuff in the green can,” which he tells salad dressing students to toss out.
Classes last about two hours. After a short break midway through, it’s time for more advanced dressings: Caesar and blue cheese.
Caesar was Lyn Edwards’ favorite. And, “Once I got home, I was able to recreate salad dressings from the class,” she said.
Edwards of Spokane is a self-proclaimed “horrible cook. Like horrible. We’ve actually gone out to eat after I’ve made dinner.”
She’s taken two classes from McCandless: Salad Dressings 101 and Soup 101. She found both “user-friendly. McCandless definitely brought his passion to the classes and made them enjoyable,” she said. “I have all the recipes still. Now, I have the basic knowledge. If I use two parts of this and one part of that I can make a vinaigrette. It’s a lot healthier.”
Near the end, participants spoon samples right from the bowl of the blender.
“We in the industry talk about creating dishes with layers of flavor,” said McCandless, who loads up his blue cheese dressing with ¾ pound of blue cheese. “This one is off the Richter scale for blue cheese.”
“Very fresh,” one said.
“Much better than the bottle,” said another.
That’s what McCandless likes to hear. “Now you’re empowered to do dressings a different way,” he said. “I hope you never buy bottled salad dressing again.”
Red Wine Vinaigrette
From Scott McCandless of Clover in Spokane
1/3 cup red-wine vinegar
2 glove garlic, diced
1 shallot, diced
1 tablespoon fresh parsley, chopped
1 tablespoon fresh basil, chopped
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2/3 cup of extra-virgin olive oil
Combine all ingredients through pepper in the bowl of a food processor or blender, and process. While mixture mixture is processing, slowly drizzle in olive oil.
From Scott McCandless of Clover in Spokane
1/2 cup Greek yogurt
1/2 cup real mayonnaise
1/2 cup sour cream
1/4 cup buttermilk
2 tablespoons dried parsley
1 tablespoon dried dill
1/2 tablespoon dried chives
1 teaspoon Worcestershire
1 clove garlic, minced
1 pinch each kosher salt and black pepper
Combine all ingredients in the bowl of a food processor or blender, and process until combined.