Impromptu Composed Salad

Salade Canaille

Preparation info

    • Difficulty


Appears in

Simple French Food

By Richard Olney

Published 1974

  • About

To baptize this kind of salad canaille, underlining the French affection for the delinquent and the demi-monde, is to suggest a quality of refreshing vitality allied to insolence—a certain flaunting refusal to respect accepted formulas. And, indeed, one need not often respect any of the endless and precisely defined classical recipes for composed salads (Niçoise, Waldorf, Andalous, Mimosa, Francillon, Bagration, and so forth interminably) to be struck with the puerility of such a pastime and to realize how much more valuable and exciting is the imaginative and playful, self-renewing invention of a giant composed salad, never once repeated, its composition dictated by the materials at hand. And, given the fanciful but far from frivolous presence of flowers and a sufficient variety of green things, presented in a vast, wide ceramic or earthenware vessel (you need the space for easy tossing and the large surface for decorative effect), nothing in the entire repertory of food possesses the same startling, vibrant visual immediacy—the same fresh and casual beauty. It is a concentrated, pulsating landscape of garden essences and must absolutely be tossed at table, for, no matter how delicious, the visual explosion of joy, mixing intricately and lastingly with your guests’ memories of mingled flavors, adds a dimension.

This salad, in the seasonal round of my own life, symbolizes the happiest time of the year—that which is lived almost entirely out of doors with the table set daily on the terrace in the shade of a grape arbor, the sparkling play of light heightening the effect of the table display of variegated greens and bright-colored punctuations. Alternating the honors of the summer luncheon table with the earlier-mentioned crudités, it serves sometimes as an hors d’oeuvre; often, preceded by melon or figs with ham in the Italian manner and followed by cheeses, it is the principal course, and sometimes it represents the entire meal.

Aside from those elements listed under crudités, possible ingredients may include leftovers of all kinds: Meats, poultry, game or fish, the flesh carefully separated from bones and fat and cut into cubes, thin slices or rough juliènne, flaked or broken up, depending on its nature; boiled potatoes, macaroni, rice, white, kidney, or flageolet beans, chick-peas or lentils; peas, leeks, spinach, or beets; sautéed zucchini, mushrooms, raw or cooked, or grilled sweet peppers. Anchovies may be incorporated into the sauce or used as a garnish and, in the absence of more amusing leftovers, tinned tuna, crab, or lobster can be useful. Leafy things may include tiny tender leaves of borage or sorrel, purslane, arugula, rocket, chicory (the tiny, richly dark red heads of Italian chicory add wonderful color to their bitter freshness), watercress, field cress, young dandelion, and any of the lettuces—with the possible exception of the ignoble iceberg. The herbs I choose from among basil, parsley, chives, chervil, tarragon, hyssop, dill, lemon thyme, leaf thyme, fennel, marjoram, and, if it is young and tender, savory. The decorative splash of nasturtiums, calendula petals, or ultramarine hyssop is supplemented by delicate peppery savors, that of the nasturtium being particularly attractive and highly personal.

Roasting juices, carefully cleansed of all fat, or the syrupy liquid from grilled sweet peppers may be added to the vinaigrette or, for variety’s sake, it may be replaced by a cream and lemon base.

In the face of so many possibilities, special care must be taken to avoid unhappy marriages between flavors that are either quarrelsome or tend to cancel each other out: It is wise not to mix up fish, meats, and poultry (even cured anchovy—which, in meridional France, is as common a flavoring agent as garlic—seems often to muddy a total effect and is probably best used either by itself or in combination with tuna); the peculiarities and the preferences of the various herbs have been discussed in the preface; tomatoes and beets clash . . .

Few of the other possibilities mentioned will cause any trouble, but one should not attempt to pack too many things into a single salad and each should be chosen for the unique texture and flavor it lends to the whole: One starchy element is usually enough (although it is true that beans and rice or lentils and macaroni are common and good combinations); celery and bulb fennel are too similar in their crunchiness and sweetness to logically share a salad; too many herbs will confuse the palate; avocado and cooked artichoke, both delicately flavored and soft of texture, are also confusing together, whereas raw artichoke may be perfectly allied to avocado. A salad of this sort need not necessarily comprehend a meat or a fish, but, if it does, that ingredient should be thought of as holding a star part, everything else relating to it, lending it relief.

Consider, decorative effect apart, the roles of each of the ingredients in the following recipe: Raw onion is always a useful accompaniment to cold boiled beef—it, the garlic, the herbs, and the flowers are essentially seasoning agents; the potatoes attenuate some of the stronger flavors and, at the same time, lend body and a unifying effect; the lettuce also, although not absolutely essential, acts as a buffer for the bitterness of the rocket and the hyssop and the spiciness of the basil and nasturtium; the hard-boiled egg’s gentle presence is always welcome among sharply flavored green things; the celery lends crispness and sweetness; and the remaining vegetables, each distinctly different in texture and flavor, complement one another. And, bearing these specific roles in mind, try to imagine a number of replacements: The pot-au-feu replaced by tuna and the potatoes by white beans; the bitter herbs and greens replaced by a handful of chopped fines herbes containing tarragon; in place of the meat, a remainder of squid braised in tomato and white wine, the sauce incorporated into the vinaigrette, tomatoes and eggs eliminated and the potatoes replaced by rice; mussels, fennel, and rice, eliminating meat, hyssop, basil, and potatoes; or, replace the meat with shrimp or crab, the potatoes with macaroni, the vinaigrette with lemon and cream, the herbs with dill, the tomatoes with cucumbers . . . One could go on forever, and, in practice, one does.

It is important to remember that many ingredients gain, and give, flavor by macerating some time in the sauce. Others are indifferent to this treatment and certain ingredients—leafy greens and green beans in particular—should only be tossed at the last minute. Tomatoes, if used as surface garnish, may simply be cored and cut into sections, but if they are to join in the maceration, they should be peeled, seeded, and coarsely chopped, sliced, or cut into small sections. Not only does the proportion of vinegar to oil vary depending on the ingredients, but the amount of seasoning necessary is also greatly elastic: A vinaigrette that is perfectly seasoned for a simple green salad will require a bit more salt in the presence of most starchy products—and a great deal more for grilled sweet peppers, for instance. The only way to satisfactorily prepare a sauce for a compound salad is to begin with the basic sauce, taking care not to oversalt—an irremediable error, and then season progressively, adding oil and vinegar also, if necessary, as the various elements are added.

It goes without saying that the following recipe is an example and that neither proportions nor specific ingredients need be strictly respected.