(Photo cred: William Panlilio)
The door opened and soft candlelight spilled out into the cold, gray hallway. The low thumping of some European house DJ played in the background and for a moment, as we carried our groceries into the apartment, I thought that I was going to be the rude intrusion that spoiled someone’s carefully planned date night. But no, this was just another opulent dinner at our friends William and Licelle’s apartment. The Facebook event was called “D’avoir Une Fête” (or, “to have a feast”). The cover photo was one of soft, pillowy macarons. The description: “French dishes, French wine, French desserts — French kiss?”. And the menu? Fit for some dimly lit corner bistro in a quiet street in Gai Paree.
I have this love-hate relationship with French food. On the one hand, it’s luxury, romance, class that elevates the dining experience and makes everything from family Sunday brunches to romantic soirées that much more elegant. On the other is this stuffiness (so I can only make the mother sauces this…exact…way?), the pretentiousness (why does my waiter have to turn up his nose and squint when he pronounces the dish’s name?), the uppity, my-haute-cuisine-beats-your-lasagna vibe. I always wondered how French cuisine, by simply naming something in French, makes a dish sound like a million bucks. Fattened duck liver? How about Foie Gras. Braised chicken and apples in brandy sauce? How about Poulet Vallée d’Auge. No other cuisine makes food just sound so…damn…sexy.
But when you’ve just gone through one of the most harrowing client engagements yet. When you’ve felt the horror and seen the quiet desperation that I have, French cuisine is one of the few that envelops you in some soft, seductive embrace and says “it’s OK to feel again”.
For tonight’s French-only dinner, I made two dishes: a warm grape and frisée salad drizzled with a light and spicy dressing, and Poisson à la Meunière (Pan-fried fish in lemon butter sauce…recipe in future post). Also on the menu was Boeuf Bourguignon (Beef braised in red wine and cognac with pearl onions and carrots) by William and a Flourless Chocolate Cake topped with a frozen meringue and raspberries by Bianca. Suffice it to say that this indeed was a dinner of the senses.
Of course it would be criminal to talk about all this food without sharing the recipe so for this first one is a relatively simple salad. Tangy, light, and accented by the sweetness of grapes cooked in red wine.
The American concept of salad is quite sad in my opinion. I read this great article on the NY Times last year extolling the virtues of the French approach to salads. Light, balanced, and a delicate hand when it comes to dressing (Chop’t…Im talking to you)…ie. what people will be saying about your salad.
Some tips before we start: make sure your bowl and your leaves are dry. This ensures that the dressing coats your salad (oil and water don’t mix remember?) and not the bottom of your bowl. No one wants an acidic cesspool at the bottom of the salad bowl. Also, go light on the dressing, you can always add more later. Finally: balance! Don’t overdo the shallots lest it overpower the grapes.
So (as Chef Paul Vandewoude of Miette Culinary Studio once emphasized to me) with “love and passion”, gather the following for the base…
A head of frisée (look for springy, curly leaves) or a salad mix that’s more arugula and spinach rather than lettuce
2 shallots or 1 red onion, diced
Juice of 1 – 2 lemons
Bunch of grapes (about 4 cups worth or enough to cover the surface of your salad), halved
1/4 c. red wine
3 tbsps. sugar
– 1/4 c. extra virgin olive oil
– 4 – 6 tbsps. hot sauce (preferably Tabasco and to your taste)
– salt and pepper
– 1 tsp. mustard (as the French do)
Get out your chopping board and salad bowl and…
1) Separate the frisée leaves and tear off the lower-most stem portion by hand. Unlike lettuce, the majority of this leaf is edible so try not to waste it. Wash and dry this along with the other leaves (in my case, I had an extra bad of salad mix) and set aside.
2) Cut your grapes in half and toss into a hot saute pan. After a minute or so when the grapes are nice and hot, pour in your wine and sugar and reduce the heat to low. This’ll be done when most of the wine has reduced.
3) While your grapes cook, dice your shallots.
4) The grapes should almost be done so quickly mix your salad dressing directly in the salad bowl, mixing well to make sure all the ingredients are incorporated into each other. Swirl this around your bowl. This technique ensures even coating rather than the uneven drizzling we usually do onto our salads.
5) To plate, toss in your greens, squeeze some lemon on tops and mix not with some fancy wooden contraption, but with your own two hands. Sprinkle the shallots and grapes on top and garnish with lemons.
We cut up some of William’s warm garlic bread for some makeshift croutons as well and so at this point, the usual Piling of the Plates began. It wasn’t too long before the 5th bottle of Champagne (yes…for Champagne, France) was popped and the Kir Royals began warming an already dark and intimate room. Boisterous laughter drowned out the music and as entrees quickly gave way to dessert, I once again found myself warming up to the French way of dining: simplicity dressed in an aura of elegance. I thought about the hapless individuals I’ve run into lately and how a simple plate of cheese and jam or some similar French dish might just give them the joie de vivre so lacking in our daily lives. Is this salad simple? In making yes. In spirit it is anything but.