Tuesday, September 24, 2013


We all have our favorite salad. And we can all probably remember some really baad salads. I'll give you an awful memory of mine: in Vernon, France, only steps from the sublime Monet garden, is a small hotel restaurant. I ordered a salad. It came with wilted lettuce, long-ago cut tomatoes and canned corn. What is it with the French and canned corn? They'll put the stuff on almost anything except foie gras, and I'm not even sure of that.
 On the other hand, France makes some of the most sublime salads going. Here's one of my favorites, as photographed in Nantes a little while ago. By the way, Nantes has a twenty foot high mechanical elephant that is absolutely magnificent (silly factoid of the year), some lovely gardens, so there are reasons besides food to visit. But who needs any other reason?
Many times, French salads come in little piles: grated carrots, tomatoes, mushrooms, lettuce, those damned kernels of corn, onions, olives, whatever. This salad, however, is different. You need a generous 3/8" - 1/2" slice (why stint? you won't do this every day) of a good goat cheese for each serving, something about 3" or 4" in diameter. Failing that, in desperation...
you can use something from Trader Joe's or your neighborhood grocery, but you'll have to form it into a patty of the right proportion and, honestly, this is such a special dish it's worth doing right. Authentic French chevre is in a class by itself. If you must go the TJ's route, you could sit the patties on something absorbent to pull out some of the excess moisture before browning.
In a pan, put a thin skim of olive oil and heat until the air over the pan shimmers. The pan has to be - and stay - very hot or the cheese will not crisp up, it'll just lay there and fester.
Lay down a bed of mixed spring lettuce on each plate. Cut hard-boiled eggs in quarters, and ripe tomatoes in slices; I prefer the less acidic mellowness of yellow ones. Quarter fresh mushrooms (first choice: Baby Bellas). Use those pre-cooked green beans you've got left over. Okay, shred carrots if you want, there's rarely a salad served in France that lacks them. But, please, please, no corn.
Put cheese in the hot pan. It should only brown, maybe 30 seconds; flip over. Keep pan hot. Pat off excess oil; slip between paper towels and put in hot oven to keep until others are done.
On each plate, arrange tomato slices in a pleasing pattern atop the salad leaves. Center browned cheese on tomatoes, surround with piles of veggies (keep them together, don't mix them up), a small handful of olives (nicoise are perfect, but any not-canned one would do), a scatter of browned ham cubes or strips, if you like, as you see in the photo. Garnish with egg quarters.
Serve a good garlicky vinaigrette on the side. Crusty bread to smear the cheese on. Lunch is ready! Take a bow. Bon appetite!

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