Salade Lyonnaise

It was many years ago when my wife and I arrived in Paris in the early evening. We checked into our hotel, and, since it was too late to make formal reservations, we went out to find whatever convenient bistro we could discover … one of those casual places filled with locals and, in the French tradition, several of their dogs.  I can’t remember whether it was just I who ordered the first Salade Lyonnaise I had ever seen on a table or a menu, or the both of us.  Whatever, it turned out to be both attractive, more than delicious, and, for its time, really distinctive.  Since those days, however, one encounters it in French bistros all over the world, so frequently, in fact, that it is often listed simply as a “Bistro Salad.”  Its contents are seemingly simple, perhaps deceptively so for a couple of them: the inner shoots of young and tender frisée, fried lardons of bacon, a vinaigrette of one’s choosing, and two poached eggs.

The reason that I call some of these ingredients “deceptively simple,” is that  you won’t easily find that young frisée, and those lardoons will require your obtaining an uncut slab of bacon.  When I mention something like “young” or “baby” frisée to the grocers in the Pomona valley, they not only don’t carry it, they haven’t even heard of it.  Yes, it can be found in a Whole Foods produce section, and sometimes at Bristol Farms in a plastic box, but that involves some travel time.  For me, the salad is good enough to merit the trip.  Note that the relatively rarity of young frisée is doubtless why some recipes will tell you that you can substitute any other bitter greens of your choice.  I would prefer not to.Frise

So … try the following for two persons:

Separate the leaves, and wash and dry the frisée, using mostly, but not exclusively, the yellow/white interior of the head.

Trim and cut some slab bacon into lardoons, about ½ inch square and fry them until the outsides are browned and crisp.  Drain the lardons and set them aside on a paper towel.  You will want something like eight lardons per serving.

Make a vinaigrette of salt, crushed garlic, sherry wine vinegar, a dash of Worcestershire Sauce, and olive oil, extra-virgin or pure.  I’ll say something further about vinaigrettes in a future blog.

In a small salad bowl, toss the frisée with the vinaigrette and bacon, and a generous handful of chopped chives, and arrange on two salad plates.

Now, poach four eggs until just lightly done (because you will want the yolks rich but runny(, and place two of them atop each of the frisée servings.  A light grind or two of fresh pepper and you’re done.

Each diner can now break the eggs so that those yolks run over the dressed frisée, both tempering and enriching the acidity of the vinaigrette.  Ah, bacon and eggs never tasted this good.



Grilled Eggplant Salad

The eggplant has many forms and a long ancestry in ancient India, but these days, it appears as an important ingredient in the cuisines of many cultures.  You see it steamed, stir-fried, roasted, stuffed, and transformed into soups or salads.  My own favorite approach is to grill it.  Sometimes I just cut it into slices about a half-inch thick, brush it with olive oil, sprinkle it with salt and pepper, and just throw it on the barbecue over high heat, maybe with some zucchini treated the same way, and wait for those brown grill marks to suggest that it’s ready to eat as an accompaniment to whatever else I’m cooking up on the same grill.

Eggplant comes in a lot of shapes and kinds, but the one I use most often is the Asian eggplant, sold in markets variously as Chinese or Japanese eggplant.  There are slight distinctions in color and shape in these two varieties, but, in terms of essential taste and texture, those distinctions are of no consequence.  Asian eggplant doesn’t have a long shelf life, so pick through them carefully to select only those that are firm to the touch and whose skins have no blemishes or soft spots.  Asian eggplant tends to be less seedy than their fat and beefy American counterparts, and their purple (light or dark) skins are genuinely edible, which means that you don’t really have to peel them, though you may choose to do so.

Asian Eggplant

Asian Eggplant

How about a grilled eggplant salad?  Here’s what I do.  I take a half dozen or so good-sized Asian eggplants, cut off their stem ends, and, with a vegetable peeler, remove strips of the skins, so that the end result is a kind of striped-looking, partially peeled eggplant.  Cut the eggplant, thus peeled, in half lengthwise, and brush with olive oil.  Grill the long eggplant halves, covered, over a hot to medium-hot fire (gas grills are fine), until there are pronounced grill marks on one side.  Then turn them over and continue to grill them, still covered, to achieve the same effect on the other side. While you’re grilling the eggplant, why not cut a large, sweet red bell pepper in half, removing the interior ribs and seeds, and throw that on the grill with the eggplant.  The whole process for both bell pepper and eggplant should take about five to seven minutes, at which the point of a paring knife should easily and deeply pierce the eggplant flesh.  Immediately remove the grilled eggplant and pepper, and set aside to cool.

peeled and ready to slice and grill

peeled and ready to slice and grill

Meanwhile, make a vinaigrette with salt, one large crushed garlic clove, excellent olive oil and vinegar. For the vinegar portion I use ½ part white wine vinegar and ½ part freshly squeezed lemon juice.  This creates the needed acidity, but without any pronounced vinegar flavors (such as occur in, say, red wine vinegar) to overwhelm the subtle tastes of eggplant.  Try making the vinaigrette one part vinegar/lemon juice to four parts olive oil.  After you’ve made the salad, give it a taste to see if it requires more acidity, and, if so, you can squeeze a bit more lemon juice into the salad.

Now … cut the grilled eggplant into bite-size pieces and put those pieces into a medium-size salad bowl, adding the grilled red pepper, diced small.  Sprinkle over whatever herbs you like … some like chopped fresh oregano or fresh parsley, and I enjoy chopped cilantro.  If you’re using cilantro, you might want to try a touch of ground cumin, if you’re so moved; it’s up to you, and those subtle flavors of eggplant that I mentioned earlier will be receptive to an astonishing variety of additional flavors.  Now, give your vinaigrette a final beat, add it to the bowl and give it a gentle toss.  Taste it for salt at this point.  If you feel the salad needs more, sprinkle some really good sea salt flakes over the top of each served portion.  You can eat the finished dish at room temperature, or cool first it in the fridge.  If you have some left over, cover it tightly, refrigerate it, and enjoy it the next day.  Give this dish a try or three, and, as the old song runs, anything goes.


A Greek Salad

The Greek Salad, as it is usually called, can be found on countless menus these days from luncheon counters to serious dinner spots.  Except mostly for Greek restaurants, who take their roots seriously, It’s usually an Americanized version of the original Mediterranean dish the Greeks call a “choriatiki salata” or χωριάτικησαλάτα, if you’re being philologically serious.  It translates as “village” or “country salad.” In any case, it’s one of the great culinary triumphs of the Mediterranean in summer, which is the only time of the year that the salad is made.  That’s because the most important ingredient in the dish is the tomato at the height of its summertime Mediterranean glory, and which doesn’t exist in any form at all in Greece during other seasons of the year.  It’s also interesting to note that, during that same time of year, Greek lettuce really doesn’t exist, so a “Greek Salad” with lettuce, an almost standard phenomenon in the U.S. is a kind of combination that Greece would never even contemplate.

The ingredients of a true Greek Salad are simple enough:  gloriously ripe and sweet tomatoes, cucumber, green bell pepper, feta cheese, and Kalamata olives.  I like to peel the cucumber first, slice it lengthwise, and, with the tip of a teaspoon, remove the seeds and pulp.  This keeps the salad from becoming overly watery.  Cut 1/3 inch-thick slices from the block of feta, and reserve.  The Greeks never remove the pits from their Kalamata olives, so I don’t either.  Some cooks, including me, like to add small cuts of purple onion to the salad. If you’re worried about guests who don’t particularly like the onion’s strong acids, just soak the pieces of red onion in some ice water for about 1 hour, before squeezing them dry in a paper towel prior to their inclusion in the salad.

When ready to assemble and serve the salad, just gently mix all of the ingredients except the olives and feta cheese and array them, thus mixed, on a flat dish or platter … the Greeks never serve this salad in a bowl.  Now … drizzle the salad with a good extra-virgin olive oil.  It would be reasonable to use a Greek oil, but, if you don’t have one on hand, it’s no big deal.  The only kind of olive oil I would avoid is the Tuscan, slightly greenish variety … you know … the kind that sort of burns the back of your throat.  Leave that oil for other purposes.  Note, because this is really important: this salad is never to be dressed with a vinaigrette.  The inherent piquancy of the cheese, the tomatoes, and the olives are all the salad needs to merge with the olive oil … no vinegars, please.  Now, lightly salt the ingredients you’ve just oiled, scatter the Kalamata olives generously around and atop the salad.  Then take those slices of feta and scatter them around as well, breaking them into smaller pieces, if you like.  Do not crumble them.  Now, and as a final step, sprinkle everything with a light dusting of dried oregano flakes and serve.  No need to toss.

During my years in the Greek Mediterranean I have occasionally encountered a chef who like to add a few anchovies to the final assemblage, but, while I like anchovies, their addition is somewhat unorthodox, and there are lots of folk out there who despise those fishes, so enquire first if you are minded to make this variation.

You know … it strikes me that I should write something further about feta cheese, but I’ll save that for another time.  Meanwhile, as the Greeks like to say:

καλὴ ὂρεξη … bon appétit.


Caprese Salad

The woods are full of recipes for Caprese Salad, and here’s my take on the matter.   Although the basic structure of the salad is a simple one, the dish cannot be successfully made or even contemplated until the best tomatoes are in full season. In California, that generally means you have to wait until at least June when the first of the heirloom tomatoes hits the local farmers’ markets.  Those red, flavorless cotton balls that supermarkets call tomatoes not only won’t do for a Caprese Salad; they won’t do for anything.

The basic Caprese consists of overlapping tomato slices, with thin pieces of a good fresh mozzarella di bufala and whole leaves of fresh basil in between each of the tomato slices.  Drizzle generously a good extra-virgin oil over the slices of things thus arranged, sprinkle a bit of salt over all … and that’s it.

Here’s what I do for what I think is a more interesting and decidedly richer version:  I start by making a vinaigrette out of a good extra-virgin olive oil, just barely tinted with a bit of red wine and balsamic vinegars.  Add to the dressing some minced shallot and some salt.  Then, cover the bottom of a plate with a a layer of small greens … micro-greens are great for this.  Dress the greens very lightly with olive oil and a hint of salt.  Around the edges of the greens, arrange tomato slices concentrically overlapping.  Instead of interleaving the tomato slices with mozzarella, take a couple of fresh balls of burrata cheese, cut them into quarters and place them on top of the greens in the center of the circle of tomato slices.  Then take some fresh basil leaves, roll them up, and thinly slice them, chiffonade style.  Sprinkle the basil generously over both tomatoes and burrata and spoon the vinaigrette over all. That’s it.

Burrata, of course, is largely mozzarella, but the difference is that the interior of the burrata is a soft, slightly runny blend of cream and cheese … absolutely and wonderfully decadent.

A final word on tomatoes.  Most people know that you never refrigerate them … that’s instant death.  However, you can put never-refrigerated tomatoes in the fridge for, say, a half-hour just to cool them down prior to making the salad.  Once the summer heirlooms are gone, the chances of making a decent Caprese drop to near zero.  If you’re dying for an off-season reminder, you can use those rather good Mexican heirloom grape tomatoes that Trader Joe’s carries.  Just halve them and arrange them around the greens … all else stays the same.  It will get you through the winter.


A Maize of Sweet Corn Salad

It’s just about that time of the year when American-grown corn has begun to appear in our markets, and, from tortillas to polenta a more versatile veggie is hard to imagine.  White corn is the sweetest, but it sacrifices some flavor in order to achieve that sweetness.  Yellow corn is the most flavorful, but it sacrifices some sweetness in order to achieve that flavor.  So … choose the obvious compromise: bi-colored corn, which is a tad more expensive but entirely worth the few extra cents.  Whether you’re just eating the cooked corn straight off the cob, or making something far more elaborate, bi-colored is the way to go.  By far the best price, as is often the case, can be found at Costco, where a pack of eight ears costs less than six bucks.  You can find packs of four ears at Vons, but they charge five bucks for those four.  In any case, try the following:

Always use fresh summer corn!

Always use fresh summer corn!

Husk, if necessary, and completely remove the silk from five to six ears of corn.  Put the corn in a glass dish, add a bit of water, cover with plastic wrap and cook the corn in a microwave until just al dente.  Do not overcook; you want the kernels crunchy.  When the corn has cooled, put the cobs in the fridge for a hour or so.  Then, strip the kernels from the cob, using a sharp knife or one of those very cool cob strippers that Oxo makes.  When you stand the cob you’re stripping on end on a spread-out clean piece of cloth or dishtowel, the falling kernels won’t bounce all over the place, and, when the cobs have all been stripped, you can just wrap the kernels in the cloth to be easily moved to the salad bowl.  Place those kernels in that medium-large salad bowl and add to them the following in any quantity you wish:

Diced sweet peppers, preferably the smaller ones of various colors sold in most supermarkets in plastic bags.

Chopped shallots or purple onion that have been soaked for ca. one hour in cold water and patted dry.

Halved and quartered grape tomatoes preferably of several colors.  Try those “heirloom” baby tomatoes from Mexico sold at Trader Joe’s.  They’re especially sweet.

1 large avocado, diced.

Toss gently all of the above with a vinaigrette made of EVOO, kosher salt, Champagne vinegar or white wine vinegar which has been whisked together with a generous dollop of finely chopped cilantro.  Fresh ground pepper is optional.

It's a truly beautiful dish!

It’s a truly beautiful dish!

Look, the star of this dish is the corn and there are any number of variations to this recipe that one can make as long as the corn continues to be honored.  Suppose you wanted a more Tex-Mex flavor.  Instead of the peppers, try dicing a large roasted and peeled Anaheim (Poblano) cnile.  Don’t know how to roast and peel a pepper?  It’s a valuable technique to acquire, but meanwhile you can use canned diced peppers.  Try adding some roasted and peeled jalapeños to the mix if you’re into some heat.  Then, put a generous pinch or two of powdered cumin in the dressing before whisking it.

It’s all amaizing!