“D’Albignac, being an intelligent man, took full advantage of the adulation which was poured on him; Soon he had his own carriage to transport him more quickly between the places to which he was summoned, and a servant to carry, a fitted mahogany case, all the ingredients with which he had adorned his repertory: variously flavored vinegars, oils with or without fruity taste, soy, caviar, truffles and anchovies, ketchup, meat essences, and even the yolks of eggs, which are the distinctive ingredient of mayonnaise.” – Brillat-Savarin
Chaste perfection is the hardest sought quality a good cook can ever hope to achieve. It’s not how much you can add, but rather how much can safely be removed that makes a dish noteworthy and memorable. A great vinaigrette, therefore, is the perfect litmus test of a cook’s ability. It requires a passionate understanding of how flavors work together as a whole rather than the scientific memorization of oil to vinegar ratios.
The art of French salad-making was introduced to England by Monsieur d’Albignac, who had fled the French Revolution for the relative safety of London. He subsequently lost everything, his family and fortune, in the political cataclysm that followed. One night, he was dining simply in a fashionable London tavern when he was approached by a group of young men eating more luxuriously than he could presently afford. After several glasses of champagne and golden sherry had bolstered their nerves, one of the youths called out to the Frenchman “Sir, we have heard that your countrymen are renowned for making both philosophical systems and salads. We would be happy to try at least one of these much-boasted accomplishments, and therefore politely request you to have the goodness to prepare a salad for us.”
D’Albignac asked for vinegar, oil, salt, pepper and mustard and prepared a proper salad. The young men were entranced. Over lively conversation they asked for d’Albignac’s address. A week later an invitation was offered for him to come to the home of an English noble and prepare his famous salad. The salad was the required masterpiece and d’Albignac quickly became known in London as ‘the fashionable salad-maker’ travelling between homes plying his craft.
The most simple things in life are frustratingly the hardest to master, a green salad is a perfect example, seemingly easy because relatively few ingredients are used. Yet how many salads have you eaten and concluded the person making it had absolutely no passion in their lives? Cooking is an art form we experience by touching, tasting, seeing and feeling. The properties of ingredients will change with your emotions, and obviously, the seasons.
To make a salad we need to scrutinize our ingredients. Fresh picked garlic is far less acidic than aged garlic. Despite man’s vain attempt to control nature, oils, even from the same maker, are not always the same. Lettuce varies with the conditions it was grown under and the season when you find it. Despite all the variables, the most important ingredient of a good salad is the wooden bowl you make it in. Many fancy cooking stores will try to sell you ones that have some kind of finish on them. The finish prevents garlic oil from infusing into the wood grain and therefore should be avoided at all costs. My bowl has been in the family for over 40 years.
The first step of making a salad: a proper vinaigrette. Start with a single peeled garlic clove placed in your wooden bowl. (Do not be tempted by pre-peeled garlic you can find it grocery stores. They are older and industrial tasting.) Mash the clove with the back of your whisk till the pungent garlic oil is released, and the bottom of your bowl is coated with it. A sprinkle of sea salt lifts the oils out of the grains of wood. I prefer Baleine sea salt but use what you can find. Add a splash red wine vinegar. Not all red wine vinegars are the same. Cheaper ones tend to have a chemical taste and should be avoided. I am hooked on Rosso red wine vinegar from Gullo. It is expensive in relation to the cheap vinegar found in most big stores but well worth the price, a small bottle retails for around $22. Add a spoonful of Faillot mustard to marry the flavors. Faillot is the king of commonly available mustard (around $6). When you graduate to the good stuff you will never ask to pass the Grey Poupon again.
For salad oils, I tend to use neutral tasting ones, like a second or third press olive oil or even canola. Finishing olive oils are too overpowering for simple vinaigrettes. A grate of black pepper to lend a slight spiciness. A small drizzle of salad oil whisked in, and it is ready.
The finished vinaigrette should be emulsified, taste creamy and fresh with the perfect balance of tart, salt and richness.
The second critical step is selecting the greens. Remember, people eat whole dishes, not individual components. All your effort in making a flawless vinaigrette can be instantly ruined by the taste and texture of mediocre lettuce. My preference is for tender spring-time mache (lamb’s lettuce, corn lettuce) grown in dirt. These have hard to beat texture and flavor, but the season only lasts a few short weeks, so it is not the perfect solution. The next choice is sweet and tender butter lettuce grown in dirt. The hydroponic versions found in a lot of stores are an ok substitute, but they lack the depth of flavor dirt gives. I shy away from romaine, red leaf and green leaf lettuces. They tend to be tougher and have sharper flavors. I like radicchio and endive for more composed salads.
Now go to the kitchen and make your French green salad. It is the perfect accompaniment to grilled beef and lamb or a warm baguette!
Anatomy of a Perfect French Green Salad