Communication and connection are the main themes of my life. My methods have varied: serving food, of course; learning foreign languages; being a closet writer; being dissatisfied with superficiality. The latter, especially, can lead to pithy comments or jokes that are sometimes not well received, but my attempts to break the ice are almost compulsive. Yet sometimes they do work, and the breakthrough is worth the effort.
Several years ago, on the last night of a holiday to Austria, we found ourselves at a campsite in Alsace near the Swiss border. We had hit the Swiss motorways for seven or eight hours straight from Salzburg, and were exhausted. All we wanted were showers and a hot dinner; but it was August in France, and a public holiday to boot. Put both facts together, and that spells fermé: “closed”.
Except . . . the campsite owners were an enterprising couple, and they had a tiny café which was open.
Sami met us at the door. Sami was the resident black Lab. He was friendly, wagged his tail, and didn’t seem to care that we were not French. His owner, the maître d’hôtel, did seem to care. A lot.
He wasn’t quite rude, but the frost was really on the pumpkin. My husband speaks very good French, but that made no difference. The contrast of his demeanor with the few other diners–obviously locals and regulars–was painful. My compulsion to connect took over, and I asked him the dog’s name.
“Sami.” . . . ahh, ok. Well. It’s time to order, I guess.
The steak au poivre and pommes frites were excellent. We gained a couple of points for cleaning our plates, but that was not enough. The salads were set down. They were extraordinary. Dessert was on the way, the patron was still as cold as his homemade ice cream, and I was desperate.
Before the steaks arrived, we’d noticed a poster or two on the walls, advertising upcoming events at the campsite–it was a happening place–one of which was a party hosted by a celebrity DJ called Sami Somebody-or-Other. Some reckless part of my brain kicked in, and as the glace was set before us, I nodded toward the poster and said (in French), “So the DJ is Sami?”
“And the dog is also Sami?”
“Are they the same?”
I was utterly defeated. I had met my match. And then . . . the corner of his mouth twitched.
It wasn’t necessarily warmth from then on, but it didn’t matter. The connection had been made, common humanity established. In exchange for a silly joke, he gave me an almost-smile: a gift I treasure still.
He also gave me the gift of this salad. To this day, it is one of the best I have ever eaten.
It was the most understated salad in the world: ribbons of young romaine lettuce, dressed with a piquant sauce of white wine vinegar, lemon juice, and olive oil. That’s all. No fistful of herbs and spices, buttermilk, or even mustard, nothing to distract from the absolute purity of the greens and the bracing sharpness of the dressing; it was a perfectly-judged palate cleanser after the rich main course of meat, fried potatoes, and cream sauce.
In recreating this salad over the last few years, I’ve made some tweaks depending on its position in the meal and its function. As a light lunch salad, it sometimes includes fresh herbs, and it has been known to rest on a bed of sliced avocado or tomato. Accompanying other items, say a quiche, the dressing may be softened by slightly more olive oil than usual. But its full glory is revealed after the main course, before the cheese or dessert. There, it cannot be bettered.
In the version below, I’ve included chives and dill for their subtle flavor notes–I understand the stripped-down version may seem too spartan at first–and edible flowers because their petals add beautiful flashes of color to the greens. We’ve been rather conditioned to look for salads that are exuberant and full of ingredients; in the quest for “interesting”, we’ve forgotten how phenomenal “simple” can be. Give it a try, and I think you might be convinced.
A Simple Salad from Alsace
Serves four as a lunch salad, or six as part of a multi-course meal
Makes 90ml / just over 1/3 cup dressing
1 head romaine or green leaf lettuce
9g / scant ¼ cup fresh chives, trimmed and cut into 1cm / ½ inch batons
6g / packed ¼ cup fresh dill, picked from stalks
6g / 1 small box edible flowers (5-6 flowers)
15ml / 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
30ml / 2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
pinch of salt
45ml / 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- Wash the lettuce and dry it wrapped in a linen tea towel, or in a salad spinner. Set aside for the moment.
- Chop the chives and strip the dill stalks. Pull the petals from the edible flowers, reserving a couple of the whole flowers for garnish.
- In a small bowl, stir the lemon juice, vinegar, and salt together vigorously, until the salt dissolves.
- Add the olive oil and stir again.
- Have a bowl to toss the salad to hand, and your serving plates or salad bowl.
- Pile the dried lettuce leaves on top of each other, and with your sharpest knife, slice them crosswise into 2cm / 3/4 inch ribbons. Put the lettuce ribbons into the bowl to toss.
- Add the herbs and flower petals to the lettuce, and toss thoroughly, preferably by hand.
- Give the dressing another good stir to re-combine it, and sprinkle about 30ml / 2 tablespoons over the salad. Toss again, and taste a leaf to test the amount. Add a little bit more if necessary, but not enough to leave a puddle of dressing in the bottom of the bowl.
- Pile the salad onto serving plates, or into your large salad bowl. Garnish with the reserved flowers: either pull the petals and sprinkle around the individual plates, or garnish your salad bowl with the whole flowers, as you please.
- Serve the salads with remaining dressing in a ramekin, so guests can add a bit more if they wish.
- If you’d prefer a milder dressing to serve the salad alongside the main course, increase the olive oil to 60ml / ¼ cup.