Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Salades: Simples, Mixtes & Composées

When you think of salad – what comes to mind? Crisp romaine, spicy arugula (a/k/a rocket), bitter radicchio, classic endive, whimsical frisée, micro greens, delicate mâche, crimson red leaf, buttery bibb, peppery watercress, mild spinach, oh yes, let’s not forget staunch, stalwart iceberg too. There are many combinations and varieties of lettuces making for varied combinations to create the perfect salad. By basic definition a salad is any dish of raw or cold, cooked or uncooked foods that is usually dressed and seasoned.

Going into class last evening, I thought, salad, ok that’s easy. What’s there to know? I figured getting the vinaigrette right would be the most challenging task – little did I know how complicated a simple salad could be!

Salads can be classified in three categories:

Simple salads (Salades Simples) – are made with one or a few different lettuces and a basic vinaigrette. We made the vinaigrette, which consisted of vinegar, salt, Dijon mustard to help bind the dressing, black pepper and oil. The ratio to remember is 1 part vinegar to 3 parts oil. This formula will never let you down.

Mixed salads (Salades Mixtes) is a mixture of several ingredients combined and seasoned together. We prepared a Macédoine de Legumes (cooked vegetable salad) with carrots, turnips, green beans and peas. The vegetables were incorporated with a Mayonnaise that each of us made. Chef demonstrated his way of plating the salad and asked the students to use their imagination and create our own interpretation. The result was a fanciful feast for the eyes, with over 20 salads presented to Chef with whimsy, detail and precision. I’ve included a photo of my own humble creation. Chef picked out 4 to 5 presentations that he liked and critiqued all the plates. Happily, Chef liked the simplicity and composition of my Macédoine de Legumes and I was grateful for another small victory.

Lastly, we have composed salads (Salades Composées) in this category we created a variation of a Salade Niçoise made with canned tuna, new potatoes, string beans, green pepper, tomatoes, niçoise olives, anchovies, hard-boiled eggs, bibb lettuce and some herbs for garnish. A composed salad features several ingredients, seasoned separately and presented together on one plate. The Salade Niçoise was challenging to complete – a lot of work went into creating one plate. From cutting and preparing vegetables, pitting olives, washing/drying lettuce, making vinaigrette, to perfectly cooking the eggs – my station was covered with bowls of ingredients. (Insiders tip: for perfect hard-boiled eggs start with cold water in a pot with the water covering the eggs, bring to a boil, then lower to a simmer and cook for 10 to 11 minutes exactly. Don’t overcook the eggs or they will start to smell sulfurous and get that unattractive green ring around the yolks. Most importantly, when the eggs are pulled from the hot water after they have simmered place them in a bath of ice water to stop the cooking process.) The final plate was presented to Chef for final tasting, approval and critique.

Remember duck confit part deux? Our duck confit came out of the refrigerator; we wiped off the salt/herb mixture that facilitated as the cure to draw out excess moisture from the duck legs. The duck legs went into a large rondeau (round pot with two handles) was covered with rendered duck fat and brought up to a boil then simmered for our dinner. When the duck was finished cooking in the fat, we crisped the skin in a sauté pan then put that in a 400 degree oven for 15 minutes to get even more crispy and succulent.

Every night at school we take a half hour break around 8:30 pm to have family meal. Students in the higher levels learn to cook large quantities of food (an important skill to master) and serve the hungry lower level students. Last night, however, our class made our own delicious and simple meal, crispy & moist duck confit and a well-seasoned Salade Mixte – it was comfort food like I’ve never experienced before.

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