It's not easy to get excited about salad. What usually comes to mind is cold wilted lettuce, watery dressing, and stale croutons. Salad seems like punishment.
We're getting better at salads in the U.S., particularly in Seattle, but even so-called "entrée salads" aren't much more than a green salad with some steak or chicken on top. As much as I hate to admit it, the French have this salad thing totally figured out. In cafés and brasseries around France, salads are colorful, satisfying, flavorful meals that feel more like a reward than retribution.
In her 12th cookbook, Salad as a Meal, Patricia Wells brings her experience as an American expat living in France to a collection of recipes that make over salads from the afterthoughts they usually are in America. Even though she is deeply rooted in French cuisine and lifestyle (she splits her time living and teaching cooking classes in Paris and Provence), the recipes in Salad as a Meal are also influenced by the flavors of Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and other corners of the world. There's a Vietnamese salad with chicken and green papaya in addition to Salade Niçoise and Frisée aux Lardons.
Some of the recipes are more difficult and involved than most people would expect for a "salad." But this is what makes them a meal. Halibut Cheeks with Polenta and Parmesan Crust and Asian Greens involves breading and frying the halibut, making the dressing, and preparing the greens, but it sounds deliciously worth it, doesn't it?
Most of Wells' recipes call for various homemade elements too: chicken stock, rémoulade, seasoned salts, spice mixes, and various pickled items. Recipes for all these are included in the book, but sometimes I wish store-bought alternatives were provided. With some planning, however, many of these recipes could be weeknight meals.
And while this is a "salad" cookbook, don't think these are all healthy recipes. There are recipes for French fries, and how to render duck fat and cracklings (which Wells suggests serving atop several of the salads). There are spicy lamb sausages, pork and spinach terrine, crepes, and bacon-wrapped goat cheese. Plus, most recipes include suggested wine pairings. All together, salads are sounding like a pretty awesome meal after all.
Patricia Wells visits Seattle in April to promote Salad as a Meal. Join her April 20 at The Walrus and the Carpenter for a luncheon and book signing ($65 all-inclusive + a copy of the book. 11:30 a.m. Call 395-9227 to RSVP); or at the Boat Street Cafe for a dinner and book signing ($80 all-inclusive + the book. 6:30 p.m. Call 632-4602, press 1, to RSVP).
Read Part II of this week's Cooking the Books and a recipe from Salad as a Meal.