Flashback to the mid-1950s: A dude-ranch owner in Southern California whisks buttermilk and mayonnaise with herbs and spices. Later known as ranch dressing, it appears to make perfectly reasonable people lose their minds. The man tries to keep up with his dressings popularity, to harness its power, but in the end, he sells it to a corporation. Subjected to a series of experiments, ranch is transformed into a glorious shelf-stable beast, designed to be better, stronger and able to survive longer outside the fridge.
€œRanch is just a perfectly engineered food,€ says Julia Goldberg, standing in a narrow prep kitchen on East Ninth Street. Its tough to compete with perfectly engineered foods, but Goldberg is not intimidated. At Superiority Burger, the chef Brooks Headleys vegetarian restaurant in New York where she works, cooks delight in taking apart all the greasy, meaty pleasures of American fast food and putting them back together again from scratch. A Philly-cheese-steak-like sandwich can barely contain its folds of slippery, spicy tofu skin and cashew cheese. The crisp-edged patty in the veggie burger creates a powerful illusion with crunchy iceberg and roasted tomatoes between squishy bread. Even a simple salad under green-flecked ranch stands out.
The dressing is tangy and creamy, turbocharged with the familiar mouth-smacking umami of bottled ranch. But its vegan, which means Goldberg doesnt use the traditional mayonnaise and buttermilk.
Goldberg says her goal was to get as close as she possibly could to the pre-made ranch she loved when she was growing up outside Washington, where her mother would strategically apply it to vegetables to get her to eat them. In early versions, Goldberg tried to accomplish this by whipping a soy-based cream-cheese substitute but later abandoned it in favor of tahini, the loose, liquid sesame butter.
The tahini seizes as Goldberg stirs in some lemon juice and water, turning thicker and thicker as she adds the liquids. It looks as if someone started to make snickerdoodles, lost interest and walked away. It does not look good. But Goldberg keeps stirring, and the tahini changes again, going smooth and glossy. Soon it has the pale, glowing translucence of fatty buttermilk. It runs thick. Goldberg adds as much chopped dill, parsley and chives as the tahini can hold, and it looks like ranch.
Yet, there is a gently bitter, luxuriously gritty quality to good tahini, and this is not entirely obscured by the addition of water and lemon and herbs. Goldberg tweaks it with maple syrup and olive oil, salt and pepper. Something is still missing.
I tried ranch dressing for the first time as a teenager, at my best friends house in Atlanta, watching €œClueless€ in the basement. I suppose it was second- or third-generation ranch, removed from its origins in California, now in the form of an intensely flavored, habit-forming powder that adhered to tortilla chips, lips, fingers. But it hit all the ranch notes: The powder was vaguely cheesy, both sweet and salty, and laced through with the mellow stink of dehydrated garlic.
When Goldberg shakes in some caramel-colored garlic powder, the dressing tightens up and tastes exactly right. (No, raw grated garlic is not a suitable replacement.)
At Superiority Burger, the tahini ranch is dribbled across romaine hearts, which the cooks toss to order with pickled cauliflower florets, cucumbers that have been cured with salt and sugar and what Goldberg calls €œsneaky avocado€ €” avocado so ripe and squishy that it disappears into the salad almost completely. But after hours, the dressing works its old, dark magic, and cooks cant resist putting it on other foods. They draw a shower curtain across the restaurants window and make themselves postshift snacks: roasted potatoes covered in tahini ranch, burritos lined with tahini ranch, veggie burgers with melted Muenster and tahini ranch.
I followed Goldbergs instructions and made some at home. First I put it on halved grilled romaine heads, soft and smoky at the edges, crunchy at the cores, still juicy. It was good drizzled over a bowl of warm beans in olive oil too, and smeared on corn, and alongside a bunch of cold, raw radishes. When I dipped a grilled lamb shoulder chop into the tahini ranch, it seemed as if maybe I had finally found its true purpose. It could help out a chicken wing, or season a sliced avocado. And would it be so crazy to use it to dress chilled noodles?
Ranch has always invited a certain kind of unhinged enthusiasm. That might be why the recipe Goldberg shared with me only makes two cups at a time: for my own good.