"Shallots. You almost never see this item in a home kitchen but out in the world they're an essential ingredient. Shallots are one of the things - a basic prep item in every mise-en-place - which make restaurant food taste different from your food. In my kitchen we use 20 pounds a day. You should always have some around for sauces, dressing and sauté items." ~Anthony Bordain, Kitchen Confidential
A few years back, about this same time of year, I was racking my brain on what dish to bring to a Cajun Potluck. Much to my chagrin, it seemed as if all the "fun" Cajun dishes were already spoken for and I was to be relegated to bring something "boring" like a salad. Or cornbread. Or both. And, that's exactly what happened.
I accepted my salad and cornbread assignment with reluctance. Ho-hum, I thought. One of the things I like about myself is that I'm not one to mope for long periods of time. Leveraging philosophy learned in art classes, I decided to look at salad and cornbread with renewed interest. How could I make these two dishes new and interesting? To see each in a whole new light?
For inspiration, I began combing through my collection of cookbooks. Chef Jamie Oliver - the self-proclaimed "world's biggest lover of salads" - seemed pretty worked up over the demise of the proper French side salad. I liked the connection between a French salad and Cajun food, so that sealed the deal.
After researching cornbread, I decided to stick with our family's favorite recipe, but instead of baking in a Pyrex dish, I made one and a half times the recipe and selected a large cast iron skillet. I baked the bread right before departing for the party, so the bread stayed nice and warm. Set on the buffet table next to all the Cajun specialties, the scene looked ripped from the pages of Saveur magazine. The new baking technique worked so well that I have continued to make cornbread in my iron skillet from that point on.
As is my way, I kind of "over did" the salad. The volume increased in the bowl and I fretted about making too much. I doubled the dressing to serve on the side to match the double portion of salad. Good move. At the end of the evening the bowl was completely empty except for a random leaf. The dressing container looked as if it had been licked clean except for a few crusty ribbons clinging to the sides of the bowl.
I overhead a guy asking his friend if he had tried the excellent green salad. The dressing was awesome, he said with emphasis. When's the last time you've heard someone raving about a leafy green salad? Especially a dude! Mission accomplished. My salad kicked ass!
Fortunately, you don't have to wait for a party to make this rockin' French salad, just scale the ingredients to fit the occasion. If you like green beans, I encourage you to take the time to prepare them and add to the salad. Which reminds me, if you swoon over Niçoise Salad like I do, simply sear sushi grade Ahi or Tuna steaks and serve over entrée size portions of this salad. You could go old school (or rather traditional) and serve with canned Albacore tuna. Garnish with sliced hard boiled eggs, boiled red potatoes, capers and briney black olives. Now, as the French would say, "Je crève de fain!"
Rockin' French Salad with French Vinaigrette
For parties, I double or triple this recipe and serve the dressing on the side. For smaller affairs or family dinners, I dress the salad in the serving bowl. This salad is divine, I kid you not! Yes, I really can get "that excited" over a salad. Although butter lettuce is probably my favorite green, romaine works well in this salad, too.
An equally great salad, but more mild is my mother-in-law, Joan's leafy green salad. A key difference in her recipe is that the garlic is poached resulting in a subtle and engaging flavor.
This recipe is adapted from Jamie's Kitchen by Jamie Oliver (Hyperion 2002). For a fun read, check out David Lebovitz's blog post detailing how to make French Vinaigrette zee French way.
1/4 cup white wine vinegar, champagne vinegar or sherry vinegar
2 to 3 shallots, peeled and thinly sliced into rounds, or minced: your call
2 to 3 cloves of garlic, peeled and minced
1 Tbsp Dijon mustard, such as Edmond Fallot
9 Tbsps extra virgin olive oil
about 1/2 tsp sea salt
freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 heads Butter or Boston lettuce, or a nice leafy green, such as Romaine, or a mix of both
1 head curly endive, if you can find it
1 bunch fresh chives, chopped
1 handful fresh parsley, minced
1 handful fresh chervil, if you can find it, leaves picked
a little taragon, chopped, is also nice
one pound green beans, shocked
peeled and grated carrots
grape or cherry tomatoes, left whole or cut in half
leftover grilled corn, cut from the cob
Cheeses and Garnishes:
crumbled Gorgonzola or shaved Parmigiano Reggiano
1. If using green beans, fill a large pot half way with water and bring to a boil. Cook the beans in salted water until tender, about 5 minutes. Transfer the beans to an ice water bath for two minutes to preserve color. Then remove to a colander to drain. Set aside. Like Jamie, I prefer my beans at room temperature.
2. Combine the vinegar and the sliced shallots in a small bowl. Let sit for 10-15 minutes or up to an hour.
3. When ready to make the dressing, remove 1/4 cup vinegar from the shallots. Gently squeeze excess vinegar from the shallots. Any extra shallot flavored vinegar can be reserved for another use. The pickled shallots are added to the salad for an extra flavor punch. In a bowl, combine the vinegar, Dijon mustard, garlic, salt and freshly ground black pepper. Slowly whisk in the olive oil until the dressing emulsifies. Taste the dressing and add more salt and pepper, if needed.
4. Wash the salad greens and dry them with towels or in a salad spinner. Please note, if you are using curly endive, remove and discard the bitter dark green leaves. Add half the shallots to the green leaves, reserving half to garnish the top of the salad. Toss the greens and add-ins with the salad dressing. Plate servings if serving a salad course or pass the bowl and let each person serve themselves.