Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Meanwhile, back in France…

Back in town again after a trip down to the States for a book signing in Ann Arbor, MI, and an appearance at Bouchercon (the big crime writing conference) in Cleveland, I was in severe cooking withdrawal. With yesterday being Thanksgiving up here in Canada, I was out in the kitchen making the usual turkey dinner. We’d gotten an absolutely delicious, Mennonite-raised bird from our friend Nick at Gasparro’s down on Bloor Street.

But that’s not what this post is about.

One of the things the French do very well are salads. It’s not the sort of thing one automatically thinks of when one is contemplating French cuisine, but during our trip to Paris in the fall of 2008 to research the novel I was writing (The Fallen One, which has just been released), we had some absolutely terrific cold plates of exquisite greens, vegetables and other nice things. To be honest, we never had anything evening approaching a bad one.

Beauvais’s rather odd-looking cathedral. That’s all there is!
When we returned home, we spent a lot of time discussing the food we’d experienced, and I kept commenting on a salade composée, especially. Was it found at a fancy restaurant with 3 Michelin stars? Nope. We were out in Beauvais, a sleepy backwater market town in Picardy, northwest of Paris, a place so quiet that they started building a grand cathedral 800 years ago – and never finished it! It’s quite a strange place that goes more up than out.

The salad was found at a restaurant that I decided to use as a setting in my novel for a pivotal scene: Café Victor.

A salade composée is just what it sounds like: everything is laid out artistically on the plate with an eye to colour and texture, as well as flavor. While the traditional way to add the dressing is to do each component separately, letting some things marinate longer than others, and then assembling the salad, most people just lay out their work of art, then carefully dribble a classic French vinaigrette over everything so nothing is disturbed. The way this dish looks is nearly as important as how it tastes.

Since researching it, and trying every one I come across on any menu, I can say that what goes in is very much a free-for-all. The recipe I’m offering today for this classic is the combination my wife Vicki favors, and to be honest, at the height of summer on one of those scorching days where you almost don’t want to eat, I can’t think of a better luncheon choice or first course. With a crisp white wine and crusty bread, I can’t think of much better. Try it and see if you don’t agree.

Salade Composée
Serves 4

1 head Boston lettuce
4 strips prosciutto, thinly sliced (this is definitely not traditional, but bear with us. It’s fantastic.)
12 spears asparagus
4 hardboiled eggs, quartered lengthwise
12 slices 
roasted red peppers, approximately 2" long and ½" wide
1 large vine ripened tomato, cut into 8 wedges
12 whole Kalamata olives, pitted
some fresh tarragon leaves
“a bit of” red onion, thinly sliced
3 Tbs tarragon white wine vinegar
7 Tbs olive oil
1 tsp Dijon mustard
salt & freshly-ground white pepper to taste

1. Place the strips of prosciutto on a lightly oiled baking sheet. Broil until crisp. Let cool. Meanwhile put the salad plates you’re going to use into the freezer to chill them completely.

2. Steam the asparagus until just done but certainly not soggy. We usually pop it in the freezer to cool it quickly.

3. Pull off 8 whole lettuce leaves from the head. Wash and pat throughly dry. Place two on each plate.

4. Arrange the vegetables and prosciutto on the lettuce. Sprinkle the tarragon leaves over the salad.

5. Whisk together the vinegar, oil and mustard. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

6. Carefully drizzle the dressing over the salad.

Note: To give this a bit of southern French feel, you might want to include a couple of salt-packed anchovy filets. I like a small piece of these with a quarter of the hardboiled eggs, but that may be just me…

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