We were sitting upstairs in the café, close to the bar surrounded by posters of Marcel Pagnol’s films with succulent aromas drifting across the dining room from the open grill. Pagnol celebrated convivial meals in his films and this Californian bistro captured that joie-de-vivre. They had a simple green salad with warm goat cheese on the menu and I started my lunch with that dish. The salad was crisp, fresh and filled with a variety of tender greens. The goat cheese was creamy and herbaceous. The flavors were clean and light. It was the first time I tasted Alice Waters’ food. This was 1984 in Berkeley. I took one mouthful of that salad and I was transported back in time to my childhood in France.
My love of salads started at a very young age. My grandmother made a simple, sweet, juicy carrot salad. Every time I see grated carrots I think if her, of sitting her kitchen watching her as she cooked. Every child in France grows up eating this salad and I was no exception. I loved it. From there I graduated to a simple green salad with a little vinaigrette, then added herbs, and then salade mesclun, which had tasty lardons in it. As we travelled around France and other parts of Europe I tasted regional specialties: Arugula salad with bresaola, prosciutto-melone in Italy, Buffalo mozzarella with tomatoes and fruity olive oil in Venice, white asparagus in many guises in Austria, and what soon came to be a French bistro classic, a mixed green salad with warm goat cheese which I ate whenever I had the chance. For me this was the epitome of a great salad. It was the dish I could always count on.
One day—now a teenager in London—I went to this hip new American restaurant in the center of town. It was located in a basement, had bare brick walls, wooden floors and black and white photos of stars of stage and screen. It had food I had never seen before: buffalo chicken wings, ribs with black-eyed peas and corn bread, and Caesar salad. ‘Try the salad’ my father said, ‘you’ll like it’. I was a little reluctant but I wanted try this American food and be ‘cool’. The salad was fabulously garlicky, had crunchy croutons and was assembled by the deft handed waiter tableside. I was hooked in an instant. A salad without a classic vinaigrette, this was so different! I laugh when I remember this but at the time it was a revelation. More were to come as I travelled to California and ate grilled vegetable salads with slightly-charred-freshly-shucked corn and tomatillos, Chinese chicken salads, chopped salads with creamy avocadoes the likes of which I had rarely tasted and peculiar salad dressings such as thousand island and green goddess.
I have viewed salads differently ever since then and I like to draw on dishes, spices and flavors from around the world to create new combinations and new dishes. Walking through the farmers market also provides ample inspiration. The spring is one of my favorite times of year for salads. This is a time when fava beans flourish, asparagus is abundant, peas pop and if we are lucky enough to finally get some rain we may get a burst of wild mushrooms. A salad filled with sautéed chanterelles is one of my favorites, although when I first come across those sensational-looking, sweet and juicy heirloom tomatoes I have trouble resisting them too. There are just so many choices and perhaps that is why I enjoy salads so much. They offer endless combinations, you feel so healthy when you eat them and they are good for you!
I was once asked ‘if you were stuck on a desert island and could only have one thing to eat, what would it be?’, ‘Warm goat cheese salad’ I replied without hesitating. You see I adore goat cheese and the cheese combined with almost any salad is one of the most perfect food combinations. If it’s warm the cheese melts ever so slightly, and when you combine that with fresh greens, some chopped chives and a light mustardy vinaigrette you have a delectable mouthful every time.
In 1902, George Ellwanger—a prominent horticultural scientist—extolled in his book Pleasures of the Table, “To remember a successful salad is generally to remember a successful dinner; at all events, the perfect dinner necessarily includes the perfect salad.” A quote I try to live up to, from the simplest meal to a more elaborate celebration or even on a desert island.
WATERCRESS AND SPRING PEA SALAD
One of my cousins in France told me she thought it was odd that I put fruit in my salads. I asked her to taste the peach and tomato salad I made for her and she has been a convert ever since. This salad has blueberries and mint, and a little zing in it. It’s very refreshing!
Serves 8 people
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
3 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and pepper
1 lb fava beans — shelled (you will need to remove the beans from the pods, and then the outer shell of the fava bean — it’s easier if you blanch them first for 2 minutes)
1 lb English peas — shelled
2 bunches watercress — stems removed
2 good handfuls mint leaves — left whole — try to use just small leaves
½ bunch cilantro — leaves left whole
2 baskets blueberries
4 oz feta cheese — crumbled
GRILLED ZUCCHINI AND TARRAGON ROASTED CHICKEN SALAD
Poulet a l’estragon (tarragon chicken) was — actually still is — one of the dishes that I always looked forward to when visiting France. It’s classic bistro fare, or cuisine bourgoise. In other words, good home cooking. Deft use of the herb is key, as the slightly anise flavored herb can be overpowering if used in large quantities. I always think of tarragon as the quintessential French herb. It’s used in a number of classic sauces, Bernaise being the most well-known.
This salad pairs moist tarragon roasted chicken with grilled zucchini and a mustardy vinaigrette.
Serves 8 people
1 3 ½ lb chicken
2 yellow onions — peeled and thinly sliced
4 sprigs tarragon to roast with the chicken plus the leaves from 1-2 more stems for the finished salad
Salt and pepper
5 zucchini — ends trimmed away and then sliced on a bias.
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon tarragon vinegar or white wine vinegar
ROASTED TOMATO AND OLIVE SALAD
I love slowly roasted cherry tomatoes. I use them in lots of dishes from pasta to crostini. Their flavor is intensified and they become rich and juicy. Add them to any salad and it transforms the vinaigrette as the juices from the tomatoes melt in with the salad. The olives are tasty salty counterpoint.
Serves 8 people
1 lb small tomatoes
1 teaspoon vegetable herb mix or Herbes de Provence
¼ cup olive oil
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
½ bunch basil
Zest of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon chives — finely chopped
½ lb baby arugula
6 oz black olives — pitted
1 bunch chives — finely chopped