Field Report:
Adventures of a Culinary Padawan
École des Techniques à la Cuisine
Lesson Fifteen: Salads


Dear Foodie Voyeur,

A good salad is actually not that simple to make. Just because people tend to think of it as an "optional" course, it tends to get little respect. A salad, of course, needn't have any leafy greens in it. Instead, the French cut and cook vegetables individually, dress them separately, and present them on a plate together, as for the salade Niçoise we made in the Preserved Foods lesson. That is a classic salade composé, or composed/assembled salad. A salad of one preparation is a simple salad (salade simple), and can include things like cole slaw or potato salad, of course, or a simple preparation of leafy greens called salade digestif. A mixed salad (salade mixt) has several ingredients prepared and mixed together, like a mesclun salad.

Salads can be composed of raw or cooked vegetables. One that is exclusively raw is called crudités. Vegetables simmered in lemon juice and herbs are said to be à la Grecque, and are similar to Mediterranean pickled vegetables. Assembled salads are usually cut similarly, to make it easier for the diner to eat. The main rule here is that everything should be bite-sized -- a knife should not be necessary to eat a salad. The arrangement -- plating -- of the dish should be appealing and complementary (see the Tournage report, where we prepared a Garniture Bouquetière).

Sauces are generally in the vinaigrette or mayonnaise families. In the first case, oil and acid -- vinegar or lemon juice -- are not bound (have no liaison), so they need to be whisked at the last minute before serving. An exception to this is when the vinaigrette serves as a marinade for the vegetables. In general, water soluble component should first be dissolved in the vinegar, and oil-soluble components mixed into the oil, before bringing the oil and water together. Salt should be added to the vinegar, in this case. Use a medium to large bowl and a sauce whisk.

The basic mayonnaise can be made, then flavored with mustard, spices, chopped pickled vegetables, etc. to make daughter sauces to add over the vegetables or to be mixed into them. A remoulade is basically mayonnaise and mustard (though with fish, cornichons, capers, etc. are added for the original tartar sauce).

Unless the strong flavor is desired, do not use olive oil. It's normally better to use a relatively bland oil, especially for mayonnaise. Be conscious of the flavors -- you want to enhance and complement the vegetables, not drown them out. Flavored vinegars -- ones infused with herbs or spices -- can be used, but again, remember to consider the overall effect on the flavor of the vegetables. Flavored oils, too!

So that seems simple enough, but this was also an exercise in cutting ... we even had to do tournage again! This time it was for zucchini, which has a somewhat different procedure. Cut large zucchini (also called marrow or courgettes) into 2 inch sections, then quarter those so you get a triangular wedge shape, or halve them. When doing the tournage, it will be less symmetrically round than for other vegetables -- you keep the dark green skin on. So the effect is a football that has dark green skin on one side, and is flattish on the other. It's rather pretty.

Mushrooms are cut into quarters, tomatoes first émonder then conscassé, cauliflower into florettes. These are all cooked progressively in the à la Grecque marinade, then strained for the next batch of vegetables: mushrooms first, then the cauliflower with some saffron, then the zucchini and tomatoes. The marinade is acidic with lemon juice, and these low-fat, puckery vegetables are really nice with a rich meat or with fish. In fact, if you go to Greek-style restaurants, you'll notice seafood tends to be embellished with vinegar or lemon juice, rather than butter.

You know those bags of frozen peas and carrots? Turns out they were created to copy a 1950s-era salad of vegetables cut into macedoine-sized cubes, about the size of peas. This mixture includes carrots, peas, string beans, and turnips. Each is cooked à l'anglaise individually till done to your liking, then cooled, dried, then mixed together, bound with a mayonnaise. Most people in the class didn't even want to try it ... it sounded heavy and looked too much like frozen veggies. But really, this salad is not all that heavy if you don't overdo the mayo and it's not too "tight." It's also really tasty and refreshing! I was surprised. Yes, I took everyone's veggies home with me.

Cucumbers were peeled (I peeled decoratively) and de-seeded with a parisienne knife (melon baller), then cut émincer. They were degorged with salt for 30 minutes, patted dry, and served with a mint- and lime-flavored whipped cream. (If you replace the cream with yoghurt, then you get the Indian raifa. Actually, this is probably inspired by the French occupation of Morocco and Algeria.)

The classic Céleri Rémoulade required us to handle a not-too-often-used (in the US) vegetable. Celeriac is also called "celery root" and it's bigger than a softball and needs to be peeled. The simplest way is to do it like a lemon, when we cut that peler à vif -- cut the top and bottom parallel to each other, then following the contours of the vegetable, cut off the skin. Then slice into thin tranche, and chop into julienne, no larger than 2½ inches long. As the Jedi Master said, we don't want spaghetti. It's dressed with the mayonnaise/mustard mixture mentioned above. It's very classical, and again, great with seafood or as a salad course.

Other salads were simply dressed in vinaigrette and various herbs, and allowed to marinate for a bit before serving. Carrots cut into julienne were dressed with a lemon juice and oil dressing; tomatoes were prepared into petals (émonder then carve the flesh away from the gelatinous center) and dressed with vinaigrette and chives; mushrooms were cut émincer and marinated with vinaigrette and tarragon.

Like I said, a lot of cutting, and again, many of the padawans had forgotten many of the cuts. Repetition is important when learning technique. Not only do you remember clearly what each procedure is, but you also acquire "muscle memory" and can cut more effectively. My partner made a pile of "pretty julienne" and "lopsided whatevers." In the end, we didn't have enough of the pretty ones, so we mixed them all together. It does make a difference, both aesthetically and texturewise in the mouth. Really! So go practice!

With Love,
Susu, the Culinary Padawan

* * * * *

Disclaimer: All contents are personal observations, and no profit or lucre is expected, solicited, advocated or paid by anyone, including those being observed. This is all just for fun. Any comments, please e-mail the author or WOOKIEEhut directly. Flames will be ignored. This report may not be posted anywhere without the author's knowledge, consent, and permission.