For a great salad, pretend you are French

David Tanis / New York Times News Service /

There must be something deep within the collective French psyche that intuitively grasps how to create a good salad. How else can you explain the fact that you can get an excellent one just about anywhere in France? A meal without salad, as a first course or to refresh the palate after the main course, is nearly unheard of there.

I can’t help but wonder where and why American salads went wrong. Though the iceberg wedge remains popular nationwide, and maligning it is tantamount to treason, we can do better. Most restaurants offer a plate of chopped mixed greens and a choice of gooey commercial dressings. Even high-end restaurants give the job of salad-making to the least experienced cooks.

To master the art of preparing salad, which is not really all that difficult, we should look to the French.

The key to a great Gallic salad is vinaigrette. The simplest contains olive oil, wine vinegar, salt and pepper, whisked together in the proper proportions so that it is pleasantly tart but allowing the flavor of the oil to shine. Start with a basic green salad and learn to dress it with a delicate hand. Your leaves should be glistening, not drowning.

Once you have a command of vinaigrette, revisit these traditional salads, which are exemplary when done right.

You may think frisee aux lardons (curly endive with bacon and poached egg) is a dinosaur, but when made with care it is a thing of beauty. Look for curly endive with tender, blanched centers and be ruthless; the darker green outer leaves must be removed. You want to expose the pale inner leaves and leave them looking as natural as possible, so don’t chop them.

In France, precut lardons are sold in any supermarket, though they are rarely smoked like our bacon. The home cook can slice unsmoked pancetta, or quickly simmer slivers of smoked bacon in water to minimize the smoky flavor. When you fry the lardons, take care to brown them lightly so that they are crisp, with a little give. (A common mistake is to make them too dark and crunchy.)

To dress the salad, you need a perky vinaigrette with a little garlic and a dab of mustard. Center a poached egg on each plate and scatter a spoonful of warm lardons around it. A few garlic croutons make a smart addition.

For leeks vinaigrette, look for smallish leeks, which are more tender and more closely resemble asparagus spears, for the French call this dish “asperges du pauvre,” the poor man’s asparagus.

After trimming, each leek gets a lengthwise slit and a good swish in a basin of warm tap water to rid it of sand. Then simmer the leeks in salted water for 8-10 minutes until softened and easily pierced with a paring knife. This is important; a crunchy leek is unpleasant. Drain the leeks and hold at room temperature for up to several hours, but do not refrigerate or they’ll lose their delicate texture.

To serve, simply smear the leeks with vinaigrette; I make a thick, sharp rather mustardy one to complement the sweetness of the leeks. Then garnish as you wish. I like capers, hard-cooked egg, olives and cornichons.

If you grew up on grated carrot salad with canned pineapple or raisins, I can nearly guarantee you will prefer the French version, called carottes rapees. It is simply grated carrots dressed with a simple vinaigrette; a lemony one works well. I prefer to cut the carrots into a fine julienne rather than use a box grater, which makes them a bit raggedy. The julienne carrots have a more appealing texture, and they look gorgeous piled on a platter, scattered with chives.

It’s not necessary to stay absolutely traditional with this salad. I often veer toward North African with it, adding pinches of cumin, cinnamon and hot pepper. Nor would it be out of place to introduce Vietnamese seasonings like cilantro, mint, fish sauce and lime.

But sometimes a classic salad, masterly executed, is just what you want.

Classic Leeks Vinaigrette

Makes 4 servings.

8 sm leeks, about 1 lb

Salt and pepper

2 TBS Dijon mustard

1 TBS red wine vinegar

3 TBS extra-virgin olive oil

2 tsp capers

8 to 12 cornichons

12 olives, such as nicoise, oil-cured black or green picholine

2 hard-cooked eggs, halved lengthwise

Trim leeks, removing tough outer layers and cutting off root ends. Leave a little green at the top. Make a lengthwise slit partway down each leek. Put leeks in a large basin of warm tap water and swish vigorously to dislodge any sand or dirt. Remove carefully, leaving grit in basin.

Fill a medium sauce pot with water and bring to a boil. Add a generous pinch of salt and put in leeks. Cook at a brisk simmer for 8-10 minutes, until leeks are quite tender when pierced with a paring knife. Drain and cool to room temperature.

Make vinaigrette: Put mustard and vinegar in a bowl and stir to dissolve. Whisk in olive oil to make a thick sauce. Season with salt and pepper.

Blot leeks and divide among 4 plates. Spoon vinaigrette over leeks, smearing with back of spoon. Sprinkle with capers. Garnish each plate with cornichons, olives and half an egg.

Julienne Carrot Salad

Makes 4 servings.

3⁄4 lb medium carrots

1 sm shallot, finely diced

2 TBS lemon juice

1⁄2 tsp finely grated garlic

3 TBS extra-virgin olive oil

Salt and pepper

2 TBS thinly sliced chives

Peel carrots and cut into fine julienne. Place in a medium bowl.

Put shallot, lemon juice and garlic in a small bowl. Stir in olive oil and season with salt and pepper.

Lightly salt carrots, add vinaigrette and toss well. Let marinate for 5-10 minutes. Taste and adjust seasonings. Pile the carrots onto a serving platter and sprinkle with chives.

Frisee aux Lardons (Curly Endive with Bacon and Egg)

Makes 4 servings.

4 handfuls tender, pale curly endive (about 10 oz)

6 oz thick-cut bacon, sliced crosswise into 1⁄4-inch-thick lardons

2 tsp Dijon mustard

2 TBS sherry vinegar

1⁄2 tsp finely grated garlic

3 TBS extra-virgin olive oil

Salt and pepper

4 eggs

12 thin slices from a French baguette, lightly toasted and rubbed with a garlic clove

Wash and dry curly endive, place in a shallow salad bowl and refrigerate.

In a small skillet, simmer bacon for about 5 minutes in a small amount of water. Drain and dry skillet, then cook bacon over medium heat until lightly browned and crisp, but still a bit springy.

For the vinaigrette, whisk together mustard, vinegar and garlic. Whisk in olive oil. Season with salt and pepper.

Put a low-sided skillet on the stove and fill two-thirds with salted water. Bring to a gentle simmer. Crack each egg into a cup and carefully lower into the water. Poach eggs for 3-4 minutes, until whites have set and yolks are still soft. With a slotted spoon, remove to a towel-lined plate.

Lightly salt endive and toss with vinaigrette, coating well. Divide greens among 4 plates, place an egg in center of each, then add 3 croutons. Spoon warm lardons over salads. Shower with freshly ground black pepper and serve.

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