A hymn to lettuce and my beloved bitter leaves, plus a recipe for my favourite winter salad.
If you know me at all, you know I love a salad. A day without lettuce is a day without sunshine and all that. If I’m travelling, or staying with someone not so chlorophyll compliant, after a day or two, I crave leaves, raw vegetables, freshness.
In spring and summer, satisfying this craving is easy. Some chopped tomatoes on a plate, olive oil, salt, perhaps a splash of vinegar. That’s it. Thank you. In autumn and winter, it requires a little more thought. The sort of simple green salad that follows almost every main course in French houses is a staple all year round, but what about those substantial main-course salads when tomatoes and green beans, peppers and cucumbers aren’t at their best?
Step forward, bitter leaves. This is your moment, frisée, endive, rocket, radicchio and escarole, kissed by cold, crisp, brisk with bite. They are delicious, play well with others, and feel somehow improving. It’s easy to understand the near miraculous liver-cleansing properties that have been ascribed to them by the French and Italians for centuries. It’s certainly true that a few handfuls of bitter leaves tossed with a bracing dressing is the perfect companion to rich winter food.
It’s a punchy combination of bitter, crunchy, salty and creamy and it honestly took me more time to type up the recipe than it will take you to make it.
Today’s salad is one of my winter favourites. We were recently in Lyon and stopped for lunch at Café Abel, famous for its poulet aux morilles à la crème (chicken with morels in cream sauce). But what to start? In the spirit of when in Lyon and all that, I had the salade Lyonnaise, that combination of frisée, lardons, croutons and a poached egg in a warm mustard-y dressing. It’s a punchy combination of bitter, crunchy, salty and creamy and it honestly took me more time to type up the recipe than it will take you to make it.
When I used to make this in England, it always perplexed me why it was so difficult to track down frisée, even in the middle of London. It is such a trooper of a lettuce. It may be as big as a snoozing cat, but it keeps very well in the salad drawer and you can keep pulling on its leaves for ages. If you do have problems getting hold of it, you could use radiccio, endive or escarole, singly or in combination. I have also had a very good one made with dandelion leaves, though that is more of a springtime adventure.
You also need lardons. For this salad, I prefer smoked bacon (poitrine fumée), but that is an entirely personal preference. It’s also best if they are quite chunky, so try to get a piece of poitrine fumée, slab bacon or pancetta which you can cut up yourself into cubes. If this isn’t possible, of course use the precut pieces you can buy in many supermarkets now, though they tend to be quite small so need less cooking. And eggs, super fresh eggs (see TIP How to poach an egg, below)
Once you’ve got all that together, you can have it on the table in under 15 minutes. Get going!
Serves 4 as a starter, 2 as a main course
4 generous handfuls of frisée lettuce, or other bitter leaves
4 tbsp olive oil or sunflower oil
250g lardons, smoked for preference, cut into cubes of about 2cm
4-6 slices of baguette, about 1.5cm thick, fairly stale, roughly torn into biggish pieces
1 shallot, finely diced
1 tbsp Dijon mustard
3-4 tbsp red wine vinegar
4 eggs, as fresh as possible to make your life easier
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
In France, it is seen as incredibly gauche to cut the salad on your plate. To save your friends from this indignity, make sure you tear the leaves into bite-sized pieces, or pieces not so large that they can’t be folded successfully onto the fork. Wash them and dry them well then tip them into a large bowl.
Fill a high-sided frying pan (the kind often described as a chef’s pan) with about 6-7cm water and bring to a simmer.
Warm 2 tbsp of the oil in a frying pan over a medium heat and sauté the lardons until golden. Use a slotted spoon to scoop them onto a plate lined with kitchen paper to drain.
Pour the remaining oil into the pan you’ve fried the lardons in and sauté the croutons until golden on all sides. Lift them out of the pan with a slotted spoon and put them on the plate with the lardons.
Next, lower the heat and sauté the shallot until soft, stirring, and making sure you don’t let it take on any colour. Turn off the heat under the pan but leave it on the hob. Whisk in the mustard and vinegar.
Break the eggs one at a time into a saucer and tip them into the barely-simmering water of your chef’s pan. Let them cook just until the white is set, this should take only a couple of minutes. While they’re cooking, tip the still-warm dressing (I use a rubber spatula so I don’t waste the smallest drop) over the salad leaves and toss until everything is very well coated. Add the croutons and lardons, toss again and divide between four plates. Gently lift the poached eggs out of the pan with a slotted spoon and place one on top of each salad plate and season with salt and pepper. Serve as quickly as possible. That sounds less bossy than ‘immediately’.
TIP How to poach an egg
This fills many with unreasonable dread. There are so many methods, some barely stopping short of witchcraft, of how to get it right. But once you’ve got your technique down, you can fly – put them on toast, float them in soup, or add them to salads, as here. Give yourself a fighting chance by using the freshest eggs you can, as the white still clings firmly to the yolk. Some add a splash of vinegar to the water to encourage the egg to hold together, though I don’t – just don’t add salt, which will break down the white. I simply bring a shallow pan to a gently simmer and tip the eggs in one at a time, let them cook just until the white has set and then scoop them out with a slotted spoon and let them drain briefly. I don’t trim them, or use those silicone moulds which make them all slightly disconcertingly identical. I like to let them be themselves.
This weekend, I’m going to be busy tidying the garden and getting started on decorating the house for Christmas, so I’m going to need something simple and delicious - and warm - to keep me going. The menu in my weekend newsletter will be built around a recipe for spicy meatballs in tomato sauce. If that sounds like your kind of thing, do join me.
Market haul 28 November, 2023
This week’s market haul comprises: poitrine fumée, thirteen eggs, as is traditional, persimmons, a baguette, Belle de Boscoop apples, Louise d’Avranche pears, frisée lettuce, that old faithful, potimarron pumpkin, bananas (I hate bananas, this is just another example of how kind I am to my husband), cèp sausages, mint, because my mint in the garden is knackered now.