Monday, August 22, 2011

Not-So-Simple Salads

By Emma DeSantis

Salads, not simple? Who’d have thought? Prior to Lesson 10, when I thought of making salads, the word “complex” wasn’t usually something that sprung to mind. However, this was a word that stuck with me during this lesson and long after. I had visions of Salad Lesson being a leisurely session where we would mix various vinaigrettes, dress some lettuce, and after praising ourselves and our teammates for how perfectly we seasoned the dressing, we would have a few minutes at the end to practice tournage. Not so.

Thankfully, following Soup Day which was deceptively difficult and completely kicked our butts, our chef instructor pre-warned us that this lesson was another one that was not as easy as it sounded.

The first salad we made was a classic–Niçoise Salad, which is known as a composed salad as it is, (who would have thought), composed of a mixture of several different ingredients put together. Each component was separately dressed with a vinaigrette of olive oil, wine vinegar, garlic, salt, and pepper. The components consisted of a base of lettuce, string beans, tomato, egg, bell pepper, olives, tuna, and anchovies (yum).The final presentation of this salad was beautiful and I was pleasantly surprised when I realized it tasted even better than it looked. So far, so good.

Then it was on to the Sweet and Bitter Greens with Tomato and Herbs. This salad consists of several different bitter greens, coated in a vinaigrette and surrounded by wedges of tomato, also lightly coated in the vinaigrette, and fresh herbs, topped with thin slices of toasted baguette. After presenting this to Chef, there came a moment of testing my patience (not a strength, but something I am working on). As much as I wanted to scoff the salad like a ravenous herbivore, as I so often do, Chef suggested we wait for dinner break to add duck confit on top. The duck confit was prepared the last lesson and had been preserving in its own fat for several days—oh yeah! It truly was the pièce de résistance of the dish, or dare I say, the entire lesson. (Sorry, salads.) The classroom was a little more quiet than usual for dinner break—always a good sign that people are totally immersed in their food experience.

I never thought I would ever make a salad that consists of about 20 ingredients, but the Cooked Vegetable Salad did it. It was the ultimate recipe for students to practice different techniques and included cutting macedoine (a cut that transforms your vegetables into 1/2-by-1/2 centimeter cubes) and cooking l’anglaise for the vegetable component. It also required us to create an emulsification for the basil mayonnaise and I can always use more practice in all of these things!

For the final presentation of this dish we made very fine slices of cucumber using the mandolin. I confess I had images of sliced fingertips, but I am happy to say everyone’s fingers are still intact—for now at least. Once we combined the veggies with the mayo and placed this mixture in a timbale mold (along with the tomato fondue, another component of the recipe that’s simple but SO GOOD), we were ready to present.

The moment of truth is presenting to Chef. Is all of your love, blood, sweat and tears that went into making this dish going to be enough? Perhaps that is a little dramatic, but sometimes not far off...

“A little more salt on the vegetables, otherwise good.” Hey, I’ll take it! Besides allowing my potatoes to come to a rolling boil (busted), this was about as chaotic as Salad Lesson got.

As lessons are getting busier and yes, more difficult, I am enjoying them even more. I have learned so much after just a few weeks of the program and despite having a long way to go, what makes the difference is that I actually love learning this stuff. I know that with some passion, practice and persistence I’ll be able to take on any salad that is thrown at me… so to speak.

Emma is originally from New Zealand and is a Classic Culinary Arts student at The French Culinary Institute. She is inspired by cuisines of different cultures and loves to cook for anyone willing to eat her food.

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