mercredi 28 octobre 2009

Les salades

With all the richness and extravagance we normally associate with French cooking, it’s easy to overlook one of the simplest, most wonderful staples of every meal: the salad. I like the way salad is done in France. It’s always easy, always fresh, and best of all, always there. Often no more than a handful of romaine leaves and “la sauce”, or a quick handmade dressing, the starter salad is essential to accompany the first course of a meal (usually a dish made of seasonal vegetables as well). I’m talking everyday cooking, of course, and it’d be a good habit to incorporate this simple pile of greens (or otherwise vividly colored produce) into the beginning of every meal.

It’s important to think as well that a salad need not be—or even, for a starter, should not be—an elaborate dish, complete with tomatoes, onions, eggs, croutons, and grated cheese. A few crisp leaves, something fresh to throw on top (if you have it), and that’s that.

Some common salads I’ve had in France:

--lettuce (the most common, and yes, just the lettuce)

--quartered tomatoes, hard-boiled eggs, and tuna

--lettuce, slices of goat cheese, and croutons

--boiled artichoke

--quartered figs and pears

--half an avocado, eaten with a spoon out of the shell

--radishes with salt and butter

*And everything goes with the vinaigrette (recipe follows)

Now let’s compare this to what Americans are eating as salads in the most popular restaurant chains in the country. I personally never order salads at a restaurant, because I don’t see the reason in spending $10-15 for something I could make in 10 minutes at home. But for those who order salads because they think they’re going to feel better afterwards about what they ate…well, they’re just plain fooling themselves.

The Cheesecake Factory’s Tossed Green Salad includes chopped greens, croutons, tomato wedges, cucumber slices and shredded carrots, zucchini, and beets. It has 189 calories according to (the restaurant provides no nutrition information on its food). A little bit too many ingredients for a side, but not bad. On the other hand, The Cheesecake Factory’s starter Caesar Salad with Chicken is 976 calories. Yup, that’s about half the calories you need in a day (the full portion has 1699).

Olive Garden’s popular unlimited-refill Garden-Fresh Salad has 350 calories per one serving with dressing (120 without the dressing) according to its own nutrition information. Add on the breadsticks and that’s enough calories for one meal already.

I think it’s generally well known that the fast-food salads are not even better for you than their burgers. To prove the point: McDonald’s Premium Bacon Ranch Salad with Crispy Chicken and Ranch Dressing has 540 calories, as listed on their website. A Quarter Pounder with Cheese has 510 calories.

While I think it’s a good practice to be aware of how many calories basic foods contain, I myself don’t make a habit of counting calories. Nor do I think of salads as necessarily “health food.” Salads can be rich, creamy, cheesy calorie bombs too. But the point to list out the calories here is that salads as starters to your meal are not by nature elaborate, calorific creatures. On the contrary, they’re an opportunity to enjoy the flavors of the season fresh and simple. And that always turns out healthy too.

Buy dressing? Quelle idée!

Recipe for the French version of French dressing, “La Sauce”:

Extra virgin olive oil
Balsamic vinegar
Dijon mustard

First mix a good spoon of mustard with about 2 counts of balsamic vinegar. Whisk in (or stir in well with a fork) 2 counts of olive oil, until smooth. Salt.

Of course the better quality ingredients you have, the better this will taste. Heinz yellow mustard is not allowed here (I hope I didn’t even have to mention that, but just in case . . .)! Apart from that, this is not rocket science. Lacking all tools and know-how, you could just drizzle olive oil over your greens and add a squeeze of lemon. I purposely didn’t give specific measurements of each ingredient; try to experiment with the percentages and see which pleases you. I myself like the vinaigrette rather strong and thick, with a lot of mustard.

Making vinaigrettes in general is very, very simple. You basically need two components—an oil and an acid, with other ingredients as you like. The oil is usually olive oil, but can surely also be a nut oil. The acid is usually some kind of vinegar, but can also be the juice of a lemon, lime, or other citrus. To go the way of making a dressing—thicker and creamier—add cream, yogurt, or cheese. To make a sweet dressing, add sugar or honey. If you’re in need of a stronger flavor, add fresh herbs, soy sauce or nuoc mam (Vietnamese fish sauce), or even chilies. The possibilities are endless.

Hopefully by now you have already gone to your pantry and thrown out the bottles of orange stuff labeled “French dressing.” And all other plastic squeeze bottles. I’m particularly wary of the one called “Thousand Island.” What is that? I heard once that it was every condiment mixed together, ‘kamikaze’ style. At any rate, it’s probably mostly ketchup and mayonnaise mixed together, which is sick and gross.

Have a look at the ingredients on the label of your store-bought dressings. If there’s more than five, it’s no good to you. If one of the first ingredients is sugar (likely), it goes bye-bye. The ingredient list for Hidden Valley Fat Free French Style Dressing follows:

Ingredients: water, sugar, corn syrup, distilled vinegar, tomato paste, salt, honey, less than 1% of garlic, onion, spices, modified food starch, natural flavor, hydrolyzed corn gluten, autolyzed yeast extract, partially hydrogenated soybean & cottonseed oil, oleoresin paprika, xanthan gum, propylene glycol alginate, sodium benzoate & potassium sorbet (preservatives). Calcium duodenum delta (to protect flavor). A trivial amount of fat is added by the oils.

Compare that to four ingredients for the vinaigrette I gave above. Now which do you prefer?

Ce que j’aime le plus des salades françaises, c’est la simplicité. Avant ma venue en France, je n’ai jamais même pensé à faire une salade avec uniquement de la laitue et de la vinaigrette, comme on le voit ici dans toutes les assiettes le soir. Pour moi, une salade devait être composée : des tomates, des œufs, des carottes, des concombres; sinon, ce n’était pas la peine de la préparer. Maintenant, j’ai changé d’avis; en fait il n’y a pas besoin de faire trop compliqué pour une bonne salade. C’est-à-dire, une salade comme entrée est meilleure quand on n’utilise que deux ou trois ingrédients, afin de prendre plaisir à sentir tous les fruits et les légumes frais de la saison sans distraction.

Les américains ont tendance à faire des salades trop lourdes, un peu superflu (du moins si nous en préparons une pour le dîner). Mais ce qu’il y a de pire ceux sont les sauces que nous utilisons pour étouffer les crudités: la “French” sauce, la Catalina, la César, la Ranch, ou encore la Thousand Island, qui est la pire. Toutes ont des couleurs vraiment affreuses et ont leur eau et leur sucre énumérés comme les deux premiers ingrédients.

Moi, je préfère prendre la sauce vinaigrette avec ma salade, s’il vous plait!

1 commentaire: