Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Professional Salads You Can Make at Home

June 13

When traveling in such a food-laden city as New York, we must resist the temptation to stuff our bodies at every meal. It’s so easy to get a full breakfast, from a bagel shop where what they call a “schmeer” is more like what you’d call the better part of an 8-oz package of Philadelphia Cream Cheese, to a simple egg and toast at a diner (with about ten slices of bacon, of course, plus a cup or two of crunchy, fat-fried hash browns).

So I try to go light at lunch. Just a salad. Day before yesterday I found a lovely Italian restaurant in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn. Not intending to review it, I didn’t note the name, but it was something like Pastissima, meaning that it purported to specialize in pasta dishes. But I was focused. I was going to have a salad, nothing more.

Of course, salads in Italian restaurants come with trays of lovely Italian bread, and this one had a bowl of oil with herbs and chopped olives, just to make it interesting. The salad I ordered was Goat Cheese over Arugula, with sliced peppers and Balsamic dressing. Just a few thin slices of goat cheese that had been doused with a bit of Balsamic vinegar, not the French breaded-and-sauteed goat cheese I expected. But the arugula was fresh and tasty, and the bread was just enough to make this simple salad a memorable meal. And it’s something you and I can do at home.

Yesterday I was in the West Village at lunch. I wanted a salad, and I wanted a place I could sit inside with air conditioning. New York is now a sidewalk café town, not as it was 20 years ago when I lived here. It’s been awfully hot, and the city is not so dedicated to air conditioning as we are in the South. Today I wanted it.

I chose a restaurant called Paris Commune, on the corner of Bank Street and Greenwich. I was drawn in by the house special salad, but on closer observation of the description on the menu I realized it was that bistrot special made of frisée, lardons, and I think goat cheese and maybe an egg. There is nothing that can induce me to eat frisée, that tasteless, briar-textured green so adored by salad lovers everywhere, especially in France. Not this salad eater. So I opted for the Duck Confit salad, which was only a couple of bucks more, and it was fabulieux. I mean, good.

Confit of Duck is a process by which duck, already a rich and fatty fowl, is poached for hours in, of all things, duck fat! I don’t believe I’d ever had it before, but I hope I do again. Duck cooked this way is crispy and tender, and tastes every bit as ducky as a duck can. The salad was light, put together with very fresh, very special greens and just a hint of dressing. Both my restaurant salads here make me think maybe I overdo the dressing when I’m making a salad. I like the dressing better than the greens, so I drown them. These people, at least at the French Commune, may not even be using olive oil, but a lighter tasting choice like canola. I must learn a little restraint from the French. Remind me of that when I get back to my kitchen.

Okay, so under the warm duck leg, there was this plate piled with elegant, very fresh salad greens (mesclun, to the French, a cut above what you get in a bag at the supermarket, but that will work fine) lightly tossed with a touch of vinaigrette – and topped with craisins! And sunflower seeds! If you will check on the archive of this blog you will learn that these are among my favorite salad ingredients these days. And there they were at this very fine New York French restaurant. I thought they were the perfect touch.

I wonder if these sumptuous salads are saving me any calories. Nah. Well, we can't ask for too much.

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