Welcome to the Department of Salad #15

Salade! Tous les jours le même plat!

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CHEF SALAD: Alex Stacey, of French Family Food

IN MY WALTER MITTY BRAIN, I will occasionally envision myself as a glorious all-knowing salad god rather than what I really am:  an eager pilgrim making my way along the path to salad enlightenment. Luckily, I’d rather be curious than omnipotent. Although I adore my own salads, there’s absolutely nothing I love more than learning about and sharing all the other salads this beautiful stupid world has to offer. 

Like Alex Stacey’s composed salads. They have a lovely order about them that satisfies the bento-box compartment in my soul, especially in a time of chaos. 

She’s a charming home cook, whom the media might try to describe as “an unassuming mother of two living in London.”  But only because they don’t know the truth about her—which is that she appears to be even more madly obsessed with salad than I am. I know this because I have had her under surveillance for years, via her wonderful Instagram, French Family Food.  

Until I talked to Alex, I really wasn’t sure if the perfect salad lifestyle I’d imagined when we started the Department of Salad was even remotely possible; this is an aspirational newsletter! 

But if anyone can achieve salad apotheosis, it’s Alex, who immediately hit me up with a wall of salad-related matter (photos of her salads, above, photos of French markets, school menus, recipes) and memories from her life as a Dedicated Salad Person.  

She was born in Paris and grew up in a small village near Versailles, where her British mother was a teacher and her French father owned an industrial laundry that supplied linen to many well-known Parisian restaurants and hotels. Restaurants were therefore a big part of their lives. But it was the large, intergenerational family gatherings that turned her into the thoughtful and lovely home cook—with children to feed—that she is today. She recalls sitting under the table at these gatherings, like a tiny child in a French movie, eating a chunk of baguette, waiting for the meal to begin. 

“We had the traditional Sunday lunch where all the family gets together—you get to see how your grandparents eat and cook. It’s very important to be sitting around the table. My grandmother had five kids, who showed up with their own spouses and children. My grandfather used to put up a big trestle table. It was normal for kids to be at the table, which is where you learn to be more curious about food, and start loving food.” 

So of course salad is not just a big part of Alex’s everyday life in London (where she moved after studying modern history at Oxford). It’s also a big part of the lives of her kids, who eat like les enfants Français.  “Our first taste of salad is usually Carottes Râpées, the finely grated carrot salad with vinaigrette—a tiny child would usually be given this with a soft-boiled egg, and some chewy baguette on the side.” 

“I started my own children with the easy things like a perfectly ripe avocado with a bit of olive oil and some grated carrots on the side with some fresh bread. Little by little we add more textures and flavors, and it’s amazing how quickly they get a taste for different dressings and combinations.”

Today, she says, her daughter loves to help make the salad. “Ever since she was a very little girl, she has been in charge of the salad spinner and she likes to chop the tomatoes, add chives and other herbs. She also knows how to make a basic vinaigrette with Dijon mustard and red wine vinegar. In the summer we grow French beans, tomatoes, and herbs. The kids love to go outside to pick whatever is ready, to make into a nice salad.” 

So if you’re wondering—as I did while viewing her pretty photos—what Alex Stacey has that you don’t have when it comes to salads and getting kids to love them? For starters: it’s probably a French Grandmother. 

In fact, Alex considers her Grandma’s salade verte à l’échalote her savory version of Proust’s over-exposed madeleine. I’ve asked her to tell us more, and to give me a couple of recipes representative of her style, to pass along to you, all of which follows below, right after this salad-making video she also sent me. I love it so much.—Emily  

Remembrance of Salads Past, By Alex Stacey

MY EARLIEST MEMORIES of salads are of watching my wonderful French grandmother Simone, or Mona as we all called her, preparing a fantastic green salad (salade verte) which she served just before her cheese course as a very effective palate cleanser. I can still see her busying herself in her immaculate and orderly pale yellow Formica kitchen: quietly and carefully she washed and trimmed the lettuce leaves, which she would spin in an old-fashioned salad spinner before throwing the leaves into a large bowl. Then, in a separate bowl she would make a wonderfully piquant vinaigrette with red wine vinegar and groundnut oil with a pinch of salt and pepper and lots of finely chopped, pretty pink shallot. 

When all the family was ready for salad (that was usually when there was a lull in the smoking and arguing) she would stir her vinaigrette through the green lettuce leaves and throw in some finely chopped parsley and bring out this monumental bowl with enough salad for 10 to 15 people. 

A respectful hush would descend on the table. Voilà la salade. Everyone ate their salad with large chunks of fresh baguette, and as we were en famille it was acceptable to wipe the plate clean with the soft doughy pieces of bread. 

My grandmother was a remarkable home cook, and it was only much later that I truly understood how much she has taught me. Like so many Frenchwomen of her generation, she had to feed a large family on a tight budget. She made it work because she had the talent of being able to make something quite banal look and taste sensational with the addition of a simple but delicious seasoning or dressing. I think French women approach their salads in the same way as they do their clothes. It’s all about the accessories! In fact, I would argue that the secret of their salads is just this: from mother to daughter, they learn how to add the secret je ne sais quoi that can turn a simple green salad into a delightful experience.

Both my grandma and my mum made salads almost every day. One of my favorites was salade verte et avocats—beautiful lettuce leaves tossed in vinaigrette with finely chopped shallots and lots of chunks of creamy ripe avocado. My mum also made a really scrumptious beetroot salad for us when we were growing up. Cooked beetroot chopped and served with egg, lamb’s lettuce, and onion. So good!

But my favorite was her cucumber salad, salade de concombres. She peeled the cucumber and sliced it super finely then put the slices between two plates that she weighted down with a Le Creuset casserole to squeeze out any moisture. She would finely chop chives and make a really mustardy vinaigrette to stir into the cucumber. My grand-mère made a totally different cucumber salad with cream and lemon juice, which we also adored as children. 

I asked my kids (aged 8 and 10) what salad they preferred and they agreed that my mum’s green salad with allumettes of lardons (matchsticks of smoked bacon) and boiled egg was best. 

When I was growing up, our school cantines always served salad. And I recently discovered that French public schools still have a salad as a starter every day—a love and respect for salad is still drilled into you from an early age! One ubiquitous French cantine salad I always loved but found very mysterious as a child was the Macédoine. It’s basically chopped cooked carrot, green beans, potatoes, and peas in mayonnaise. It sounds strange but it is delicious. But did it come from Macedonia? 

The French are very proud of their rural heritage and they value and nurture their connection to the land of their forebears. Many of our salads are anchored in a very strong sense of place and belonging. Each French salad has a special terroir.

If your family hails from northern France, it’s likely you grew up eating finely chopped garnet-colored beetroot with tender lamb’s lettuce, but also lots of endive salads, the bitter crunchy leaves dressed with a rich mustard vinaigrette and topped with chopped egg, chives, and crispy bacon. 

If your roots lie in the South West of France, your salad heritage will feature walnuts, goat’s cheese and most likely cured duck breast and a vinaigrette made with rich walnut oil. 

In Normandy you’ll certainly find chunks of pungent camembert nestling in the greenest lettuce leaves; really good Normandy cider vinegar in the dressing will add just the right note of acidity to balance out the richness of the cheese. 

As a child, it was a wonderful way to learn about the geography of my country. My curiosity was piqued as I ate a punchy, creamy Rocamadour salad; where and what was Rocamadour? And the lovely white onions called Doux des Cévennes, what landscape had they grown in? And that potato salad made with the meltingly good Noirmoutier potatoes, what glorious island had produced these jewels? I recall standing in my mum’s kitchen peering at the map of France pinned on the wall (she was a geography teacher, so maps featured heavily in my childhood), tracing with my finger the journey from Paris where we lived, to these wondrous places

Obviously, I have inherited salad traditions and folklore from the women in my family, and I have woven my own experiences into the salads I prepare these days. But since I worked for many years as a publicist in the London arts scene, I also love experimenting with new colors, textures, and flavors. 

Above all, I feel strongly about using organic produce and cooking with the seasons. There is something magical about eating food that is in season: I love it when the colors in my plate match the ones in my garden.

A little note on the use of the word “salade” in colloquial French. There is a fantastic expression in the French language, “Raconter des salads,” that is commonly used today to mean that someone is telling lies. (In English it would translate as telling “porkies.”)

There are stories woven into every one of my salads: the voices of loved ones, the colors and scents of a French childhood, happiness past and present, and also the sum of who I have become now that I have lived in the UK for so many years. It’s a wonderful thing to be transmitting to my kids—the wisdom and joy of salads.

*RECIPE: Alex Stacey’s Salade Niçoise

My barn-built version of Alex’s Nicoise! Absolutely delicious. I buried the tuna a little but it’s in there. And those fried potatoes put the whole thing over the top.

Serves 2 adults or 4 children

  • 1 pound French green beans 

  • 4 eggs

  • ½ pound baby potatoes

  • 1 tin of very good quality tuna (I use pole and line caught tinned steaks from a brand called Wild Planet)

  • 1 tablespoon of nonpareil capers

  • 2 large tomatoes cored and deseeded [EDITOR’S NOTE: I used a big handful of grape tomatoes.—Emily]

  • 1 green lettuce washed and trimmed (I use little gem)

  • 1/2 shallot, finely sliced

  • handful of green and black olives

  • Pinch of dried Provençal herbs

  • Good olive oil (I use organic olive oil)

  1. Bring a pan of water to the boil, then carefully place the eggs in the water and continue to boil for 7 minutes. Take the pan off the heat and pour cold water over the eggs. Set aside. [EDITOR’S NOTE: I gave my eggs 8 full minutes; at 7, in the mountains, the yolks came out liquid.—Emily]

  2. Trim the French beans, season with salt and pepper, and parboil over medium heat until bright green and cooked through, about 10 minutes. You want them to be al dente. 

  3. Boil your potatoes, skin on, until fork tender (20 to 25 minutes), then set aside to cool. Cut into quarters or halves, depending on size, season well with salt and pepper, and fry in a little hot olive oil until nicely crispy all over, 5-10 minutes.

  4. Cut your tomatoes into quarters and season with salt and pepper.

    To assemble: Line a large dish with the lettuce leaves, then place the egg halves on the leaves, add the tuna (broken up into small chunks), the capers, the beans, the sliced shallots, the olives, the tomato and finally the crispy potatoes. Sprinkle with your Provençal herbs, and drizzle with lots of olive oil.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: You’ll notice that Alex doesn’t dress her salad beyond the good olive oil and herbs. It’s perfect that way. But if you’d like to dress yours, here is her usual vinaigrette, which she uses for salads and crudités.—Emily]

*RECIPE: Alex Stacey’s Dijon Mustard Vinaigrette

  • 1 heaping teaspoon Dijon mustard

  • 2 teaspoons red wine vinegar 

  • Pinch salt and pepper

  • Sunflower oil or a neutral oil (not olive oil); I use grape seed oil which is lovely 

    Whisk together the mustard and the vinegar, then gradually drizzle in the oil and mix well. Keep drizzling and mixing and you get a lovely rich vinaigrette. The usual ratio of oil to vinegar is 3 to 1, but keep tasting before you get there.

*RECIPE: Alex Stacey’s Organic Courgette, Mozzarella, and Radicchio Salad

Serves 2-4

  • 4 organic courgettes (aka, zucchini)

  • 8 ounces organic mozzarella [EDITOR’S NOTE: I used Ciliegine, but I would rather have had a nice soft chunk to tear apart, as Alex does—Emily]

  • 1 radicchio

  • 6 slices of Parma ham

  • ¼ cup chopped roasted hazelnuts

  • Dried Provençal herbs plus 1 tablespoon of chopped fresh herbs (I like chives and parsley)

  1. Wash the courgettes, trim the ends, then finely slice each courgette lengthways into long ribbons using a potato peeler. In a large frying pan, heat a little olive (just enough to coat the bottom) over high heat, then quickly season the courgettes with salt and pepper and fry them, for 1 to 2 minutes, turning them all the time. You are flash-frying them—you still want them to have a little bite. Remove from heat.

  2. While the ribbons of courgette cool down, wash and trim the radicchio leaves and tear them up into small pieces, place them in a salad bowl, then add the Parma ham, the mozzarella (torn into chunks), the courgettes, the fresh herbs, dried herbs, hazelnuts, and finally the dressing.

For the dressing:

  • Pinch salt and pepper

  • 1 teaspoon of Dijon mustard

  • 2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar

  • 1 teaspoon runny honey

  • 3 tablespoons olive oil

Whisk together the mustard and balsamic vinegar, stir in the honey, then slowly stir in the olive oil.

This photo is my version of Stacey’s delicious salad—her arrangements, as you can see from earlier photos, are much lovelier. Emulate her, not me.—Emily

TEST KITCHEN: One more French thing, from Emily

I’M NOT JUST ONE OF THOSE SOUTHERNERS who lives for tomatoes all summer long. No. I build a temple of tomatoes here in the barn, trying not to eat them too fast or too slowly, pacing myself until I can get back to the produce stand to replenish my supply, and worrying about their ripening rate (I do this with peaches, too). I miss them so much all winter that I guiltily eat grocery store containers of cherry and grape tomatoes. I like Nature Sweet, a lot—they always have great flavor—and I used them in Alex’s Nicoise as a substitute for her two regular tomatoes.

When I noticed how summery the salads are in this issue, I decided to just keep going in that direction, using up the ingredients to make other summery things. I turns out I had everything I needed to make my favorite French sahnd-weech, the Pan Bagnat—that deliriously sloppy and delicious combination of tuna and vegetables and olives piled on a roll soaked with olive oil and a bit of red wine vinegar (it translates as “bathed bread”). Ideally, they’re eaten outdoors, but I assure you I felt great eating it at my desk, looking out at the snow and the wind howling through the woods.

But this is a salad newsletter, you may be saying. Well, guess what: I made a kind of convertible version. A traditional pan bagnat (which this is not) is essentially a salade niçoise that you eat on a roll, which has been wrapped in plastic and pressed by weighing it down with something heavy (some people sit on it). In Nice, they have large round flat rolls made specifically for this sandwich. You can eat my version as a salad for lunch, piled attractively on some lettuce leaves, or as a sandwich. Actually, I had mine three ways: as the sandwich on the first night, as a salad lunch the next day, and then for dinner later, stuffed in a pita lined with cucumber slices and hardboiled egg slices. So good. 

One of the things I like about this arrangement is that, like Alex’s salads above, you can prep many elements ahead of time. All of these recipes are flexible: they want you to be happy.

My version uses vegetables chopped and mixed together rather than layered, but you can still create the excitement of those layers by adding crunchy things to your roll. I added a layer of cucumbers. You could also use red or yellow pepper slices and, as I said above, slices of hard-cooked eggs are always a great addition

*RECIPE: CONVERTIBLE PAN BAGNAT . 

4 servings

  • 4 French rolls (or use one large ciabatta to divide later)

  • 3 cans (6 ounces each) solid light tuna in olive oil

  • 1 very small red onion, quartered then thinly sliced

  • 1 pint grape tomatoes quartered or two ripe tomatoes roughly chopped

  • 1 can (14 ounces) artichoke hearts, drained well and roughly chopped

  • 1 jar (7 ounces) roasted red peppers, roughly chopped (you can leave this out and use fresh red pepper, chopped or layered in slices on the sandwich)

  • 1 cup chickpeas, roughly chopped

  • 25-30 pitted black olives, chopped

  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed

  • 1/4 cup red wine vinegar

  • 1/3 cup olive oil

  • 1 tsp Dijon mustard

  • 1 teaspoon salt

  • Freshly ground pepper

  • Large basil leaves—about 20 

  • 1 cucumber, unpeeled, thinly sliced

  • 8 oil-packed anchovies, drained

1. Drain tuna well; break apart in bowl. Drizzle with 1 tablespoon fresh olive oil; set aside.

2. Combine the red onion, tomatoes, artichoke hearts, red peppers, chickpeas, olives and garlic in another bowl; set aside. Whisk together the olive oil, vinegar, mustard, salt and pepper (to taste) in a small bowl; pour some of this over vegetable mixture, stirring to combine. You want it to be a little soppy. Let stand 10 minutes.

To make a sandwich. Drizzle both sides of the bread with a bit of the remaining dressing. Place basil leaves on the bottom half of each roll (you can use lettuce); top with one-quarter of the tuna mixture. Add a layer of the cucumber slices, a quarter of the vegetable mixture, and 2 of the anchovies. Place the top of the roll on the sandwich; carefully wrap tightly in foil or plastic wrap. Wrap each sandwich again in more plastic wrap or a plastic bag. Press firmly, under a plate; let the sandwiches sit, weighed down with cans or books or a cast-iron skillet, for at least an hour. Drizzle filling with additional oil if desired.

OPTIONAL: After you’ve built one or two sandwiches, or even before, mix the vegetables and tuna all together and eat as a ladies lunch on lettuce leaves or serve this mixture on rolls or ciabatta. Or, as I did, stuff it in a pita with cucumber slices and hardboiled egg slices. I think I’m repeating myself here, a lot. Va-va-voom.

NOTE: The sandwiches are best at room temperature. They can be refrigerated overnight then brought to room temperature in your kitchen or in a picnic basket, someday.

That’s it. Enjoy your belle salades.

NEXT WEEK: Steak salad with Matt Crawford, a new salad friend of mine whose family cares so much about food that they tested his wife before the wedding, to make sure she was a good eater. She was.

AND PLEASE DON’T FORGET: This is the last of my regular free newsletters. Sign up now as a paid reader if you want to receive the full glory of The Department of Salad every week. And tell your deserving friends!