EN YEARS ago, I thought I had been liberated. The United Farm Worker's lettuce boycott taught me there's life in salads beyond iceberg. Then I visited France and discovered that even romaine seems vulgar compared to the fragile, vulnerable leaves of leaf lettuce or corn salad (the French call it mache) or even more exotic varietis like arugola.
But the mental trick to creating really innovative first-course salads, as I learned from chef Yannick Cam of Washington's Le Pavillon, is to break the lettuce barrier entirely. Stop dwelling on the traditional form of salads -- lettuce dressed with trimmings -- and start focusing on their function.
"The purpose of a salad, at least for me, is to excite the palate," Cam explained, "to tease the palate at the beginning of the meal." (Purge your mind of potato and chicken "salads," which bludgeon the stomach, not tease it.) "So ask yourself, what images, what qualities, does a 'salad' bring to mind?
"A salad means, first of all, lightness," Cam continued. "For most people, a salad means something easy to digest. Second, the texture of the salad is very important. We usually think of a salad as crunchy.
"And finally," he said, "salads are beautiful to look at. Salads can have more visual care than other dishes, because you can make them in advance and take the time. So I think of 'salad' as a beautiful composition."
With this mindset, almost any salad becomes possible -- as long as it creates the right tones and textures. You can kiss your rigid salad recipes goodbye, leave the plastic lettuce spinner in your cabinet and sculpt an elegant first-course salad from almost any other ingredients -- from broccoli to snow peas to squid.
"But now that I'm free," I plead with Cam, "give me some rules to help me. If I can make a salad with everything except lettuce, how do I know where to begin?"
"Just ask yourself what kind of dinner you're going to serve," Cam said. "If you're going to serve a big, grand dinner, think of the salad as very, very delicate . . . perhaps a salad of cucumber, salmon and caviar."
"But suppose I'm serving just one main course, like a steak."
"Then the salad must be more substantial," he said. "Ask yourself, what do I usually serve with steak? Normally you would eat steak with a vegetable, non? So think about taking that vegetable -- broccoli, snow peas or whatever -- and serve that vegetable first. Steam it perhaps, toss it with some other vegetables or very thin slices of lamb and a vinaigrette. Serve the vegetable composed as a salad."
The four salads Cam suggests here play with a range of prices and ingredients. Use them only as a guide, but then venture on your own to compose salads from the mundane and the exotic, anything you see at the market or quality leftovers in your refrigerator. Cam offers these guidelines to help you:
* The ingredients must be absolutely fresh. Sounds like a truism, but watch shoppers pay 98 cents a pound for Boston lettuce that looks as if the semi dragged it along the ground from the Salinas packing plant to the Largo warehouse. If you go to the market with an image of salmon and cucumber salad, but the salmon looks old and the cucumbers soft, change your image. "Bad paints," Cam likes to say, "cannot make a good painting."
* Texture is critical. In fact, studies by food technologists show that people respond to the texture of a dish before they even taste it. Cam prepares many of his salad ingredients by cutting them in small julienne strips, which he says diners usually prefer to dice -- "julienne are even more crunchy," he said. Experiment with your own preferences.
* Swear that you'll never buy supermarket olive oil again, and invest a few more dollars in some fine extra-virgin olive oil at a gourmet shop -- golden green and fragrant--like fruit. Compared to good oil, most supermarket brands will give your salad a hint of industrial lubricant. And use a quality sherry vinegar, not supermarket acid. Cam likes "Reserve 25 years old Jerez de la Frontera," sold at top food shops in town.
* Cam's final salad rule violates almost everything you've probably ever learned about salads. Do not -- repeat, do not -- serve your salads cold. Serve the salads at room temperature, even slightly lukewarm. "You can perceive lukewarm flavors much more than cold," he said. "And when you use a vinaigrette, the cold will make the oil more viscous and taste heavier. Lukewarm, the vinaigrette will be light and fluid." Naturally, there are exceptions to this rule (see Cam's squid salad).
SQUID WITH GREEN AND RED PEPPERS (2 servings)
This salad is elegant but cheap -- a play on the Spanish ceviche, or Italian salata di mara, which are usually made with marinated raw fish or squid. Cam's easy recipe turns it into an exquisite composition: soft, white squid tossed with sparks of red and green peppers like confetti. After he had proclaimed the virtues of crunchiness, I asked Cam how he could base a salad on an ingredient as soft as squid. "If the squid were alone or mixed with something soft, your palate would focus only on the tenderness," he said. "But the crispness of the raw peppers diverts your attention -- and adds contrast." 2 squids 1 tablespoon virgin olive oil 3/4 tablespoon sherry vinegar 1 large shallot, finely chopped 1 scallion, halved lengthwise and sliced very fine 1 tablespoon each of finely diced sweet red pepper and green pepper (Note: first slice watery membrane away from the skin so the dicings are made from little more than the skin, 1/16-inch thick)
1/2 anchovy fillet, finely chopped
Salt and coarsely ground pepper
Clean the squids and split them lengthwise. Cut the tentacles off where they join the head, and soak them in cold water to remove any grit. Cut squid into 3/4-inch squares.
Heat 1/4 tablespoon of the oil in a saucepan over high (but not highest) heat. Saute' the squid, including the tentacles, for 1 to 2 minutes. They are done when they turn from translucent to opaque.
Mix the remaining oil and vinegar, toss with the squid still warm from the pan, and then add and toss all the other ingredients. Add a generous pinch of salt and pepper. Refrigerate 30 minutes. Serve cool.
Cam serves the salad in a small mound. This simple dish becomes more elegant when you serve it with pimiento-anchovy toasts.
PIMIENTO ANCHOVY TOASTS 2 fillets of anchovy 3 tablespoons butter 1/4 teaspoon finely chopped pimiento (hot if possible) French bread, sliced 1/2-inch thick and toasted Cream the anchovy fillets with the butter, mix in the pimiento and spread on toasts.
LOBSTER AND DUCK WITH SNOW PEAS (2 servings)
For the salad: Skin and fillets from 3-pound duckling (fresh is better, frozen will do) 1 tablespoon peanut oil 1 shallot, peeled and cut in large chunks 1 carrot, thickly sliced (about 1/4-inch rounds) 1 1/4-pound lobster 3/4 cup snow peas, strings removed and steamed until tender but crisp For the duck broth (substitute 4 tablespoons good chicken broth): Leftover duck carcass Neck, gizzard and heart of duck 1 medium onion, sliced Few sprigs parsley 1/2 bay leaf For the salad dressing 1 tablespoon melted duck fat 1/2 teaspoon sherry vinegar 1 tablespoon duck broth (recipe above) Halved garlic clove Salt and pepper, to taste
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cut the leg and thigh portions off the duck carcass, and trim off large chunks of fat. Heat the peanut oil in a heavy pan over medium high heat; then brown the leg and thigh portions, flesh side only, until the saute'ed side is crispy and brown (about 5 to 10 minutes). Scatter the shallots and carrots in an oven pan, place the cooked duck on top (saute'ed-side down), and bake for about 1 1/2 hours. The duck skin should be crisp. Immediately pull off the skin and set aside. Carefully pour out the fat, reserving it for use in the dressing, and leave the pan juices in the roaster until you are ready to combine them with the duck broth.
While the duck is roasting, begin the other steps:
Place the duck, minus its legs and thighs, on a cutting board, wings closest to you. With a sharp knife, cut a line through the skin to the breastbone from the front of the duck to the back -- as though you were cutting the bird in two lengthwise. Now pull back the skin from the carcass; with a little patience, the skin will unfold easily like the peel of a banana. On either side of the breastbone you'll see the dark red breasts; pry them off gently, keeping a knife handy to cut a resistant tendon or two. Save for another recipe. Under the breasts on the breastbone, you'll still see two narrow scarves of meat. Those are the tiny fillets. Pry them off with your fingers. With a paring knife, cut the thin tendons out of the fillets. Heat 1 teaspooon of the duck fat in a pan on high heat, until it just starts smoking; cook the fillets only 5 to 10 seconds, until lightly browned, remove them from the pan and set aside.
For the duck broth: Hack the duck carcass into a few pieces, put in a heavy saucepan with the neck, gizzard and heart, and add sliced onion, carrot, parsley and bay leaf; add enough water to cover the duck carcass by about 1/2 inch and then simmer 1 1/2 hours (longer if possible) while the legs and thighs are roasting.
To prepare the lobster: Steam the lobster for 8 minutes; remove from the pot and let it sit for another 5 minutes before refrigerating. When it's cool, remove the meat from the tail and chop coarsely. Remove the meat from the claws carefully, so that the tapered tips remain in one piece, but chop the thick part of the claw coarsely like the tail.
To prepare the snow peas: Snip off the ends of the peas and pull off the string; steam them until tender but still crunchy and green, about 5 minutes. Plunge in cold water to stop cooking, then pat dry. When they are cool, slice them diagonally in 1/4-inch juliennes.
For the dressing: Scrape the bottom of the pan in which you roasted the duck; there will be small spots of brown caramelized drippings from the meat. (If drippings are burned, skip this step). Add 1 tablespoon of duck broth (or good chicken broth) to the roasting pan and simmer 2 to 3 minutes, or until reduced by half. Strain the reduction through cheesecloth or a fine conical strainer. In a small bowl, beat the duck fat with sherry vinegar, the reduced and strained duck broth, the halved garlic clove and salt and pepper to taste.
To assemble salad: Gently toss the lobster with half of the dressing in a mixing bowl, and then arrange the lobster in a small pile on a serving plate. Toss the snow peas with the rest of the dressing, and arrange them on top of the lobster. Slice the duck fillets on the bias, like the snow peas, and sprinkle over the salad. Drape the claw tips of the lobster on top and sprinkle the entire salad generously with chopped, crisp duck skin which has been lightly salted and peppered. Serve at room temperature.
SWEETBREADS WITH APPLE, TRUFFLE AND TURNIP (2 servings)
For the vinaigrette: 4 tablespoons walnut oil 3 cloves mashed garlic 1 tablespoon sherry vinegar 1 tablespoon finely chopped scallion green 1 teaspoon finely chopped shallot For the salad: 1 tart granny smith apple 1 medium turnip 2 tablespoons sweetbreads, skinned (ask butcher to do this) 1 truffle the size of a large walnut or 4 dried shiitake mushrooms* 2 tablespoons walnut oil 1 clove garlic, crushed Salt and pepper 1/2 tablespoon coarsely chopped walnuts
Mix vinaigrette ingredients together and set aside.
*A fresh truffle this size will run you about $30 (if you're lucky enough to find one). A canned truffle can be substituted, though the flavor will suffer. But if you want to save money -- at the risk of toning down the unusual tastes -- substitute dried shiitake mushrooms, available in most Oriental food stores. Soak the mushrooms in lukewarm water for 20 to 30 minutes, slice off the stems, squeeze dry, slice into quarters, and saute' 1 to 2 minutes in a teaspoon of walnut oil over medium high heat.
Mix all vinaigrette ingredients together and set aside.
To prepare the apple and turnip: Peel and quarter the apple. Carve edges to make each quarter into a cyclindrical shape approximately 1-inch square. Slice into small squares, 1/8-inch thick. Prepare turnip the same way (the squares will be slightly smaller than the apple's).
Cut the sweetbreads into large chunks, about 1 1/2 inches long by 1/2-inch wide.
Heat 1 tablespoon walnut oil in saucepan over high heat until it starts to smoke. Saute' sweetbreads 3 to 4 minutes, stirring occasionally, until they turn light, crusty brown. Season lightly with salt, and remove from the pan.
Heat 1 tablespoon walnut oil in the pan over high heat, and saute' the apple and turnip slices, stirring constantly, until they just begin to brown but are still crisp. Just before removing apples and turnips from heat, smash peeled garlic clove with the heel of your hand and stir 5 to 10 seconds with the mixture. Salt and pepper lightly. Remove apples and turnips from pan, discarding the garlic clove. When the apple and turnips are lukewarm, gently toss the turnip-apple mixture with the sliced truffles (save one slice) or shiitake mushrooms, and half the vinaigrette. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Arrange in a wreath on a serving plate.