Of all the dishes French cuisine has given us, “leafy greens” might not come to mind as immediately as flaky croissants, boeuf bourguignon, or anything involving a buttered baguette. But despite their penchant for butter and cream, the French do indeed eat their veggies, too — and they’re quite good at it. (France is, after all, the home of such infamous salads as the Niçoise and Lyonnaise.)
Below, a few tips we’re borrowing from the French for taking salad out of side-dish purgatory and making it the main event. Just don’t skip the baguette.
Keep your composure.
Few know how to compose a salad quite like the French. And “composed” is indeed the working term here: the salade composée, or a salad artfully arranged on a platter or plate rather than tossed with dressing in a bowl, is a go-to French meal in the warmer months.
Rather than dumping it in a big bowl, each component is neatly laid out side by side, finished with a drizzle of dressing, and served with a spatula rather than salad tongs. “Tossed together, the result would be sloppy and monotonous,” writes The New York Times‘ Julia Moskin. “A bit of order makes it satisfying and elegant.”
Think outside the boxed lettuce.
Unless there’s a martini involved, a slab of watery iceberg does not a dinner salad make, and night after night of the same ol’ spinach can get boring after a while. Skip the usual suspects like romaine, and try for some of the more flavorful, often slightly bitter greens that pop up in classic French salads, like shaved endive, radicchio, dandelion greens, mustard greens, or curly frisee. Pile on the flavor by tearing up fresh herbs, like tarragon, dill, or parsley, and adding them to the mix.
Put an egg on it.
And I don’t mean the rubbery hard-boiled egg chopped into your local deli’s Cobb salad. In classic French salads, like the bistro frisée, a perfectly poached egg adds next-level richness, especially once that runny yolk mixes in with your dressing (preferably a simple vinaigrette with Dijon) to coat your greens. If you’re a poaching pro and you’re feeling extra fancy, try coddling.
Do veggies the French way.
There’s a lot to love about the classic Niçoise, but one of my favorites is the cool, crunchy snap of fresh French haricots verts (or, good old-fashioned string beans), especially in the summer. While some French traditionalists insist that the veggies in a Niçoise should always be raw, Julia Child’s recipe calls for blanching them, chilling them, and seasoning them (alongside equal parts quartered tomatoes) in vinaigrette before adding them to the bowl.
Don’t skip the chilled French potato salad, either: the slices of potatoes are doused in wine or vermouth while they’re still warm in order to absorb the flavor.
Don’t fear the fat.
“Hearty salad” might seem like an oxymoron — until you try the Lyonnaise, a rustic, provincial salad that uses lardons (slab bacon) to add a fatty, juicy, savory crunch atop delicate bitter greens. No lardons handy? Regular strip bacon, pancetta, or cured ham will work just fine. And unlike shredded chicken or tuna, a little goes a long way. Some preparations even use the rendered pork fat in the dressing itself.
Try a warm dressing.
Sometimes, there’s just something so much more satisfying and sating about a warm meal. Salads become immediately more supper-worthy with a gently warmed dressing of rendered fat, vinegar, minced shallots, and a bit of Dijon mustard, sizzled together over low heat in the skillet.
(Image credit: Lauren Volo)
Reach for French cheese.
All too often, my staple salad cheese rotates between Parmesan, goat, and feta — all of which are delicious, of course. But funky, cave-aged Roquefort or mild Emmenthal can add that certain … je ne sais quoi.