I've been thinking about salad a lot lately, which is strange, because how inspiring can a salad really be? The salads I grew up with were made of lettuce with a bunch of chopped vegetables--carrots, mushrooms, peppers, whatever--doused with a dressing from the fridge door. Everyone put their favorite dressing on, and that worked pretty well. It was the typical "your-choice-of-dressing" side salad, and it was just a way to sneak in some vegetables next to the main event.
But in a French bistro setting, a salad is carefully balanced, based around a good vinaigrette and an opportunity for greatness. There is nothing more required than fresh lettuce and a perfect sauce. Elin and I splurged on a meal at Thomas Keller's restaurant Bouchon this summer when we were in California, and we both ordered the bibb lettuce salad, which is tossed with minced fresh herbs and shallots and the house vinaigrette. The lettuce was rich and glistening, tart and refreshing, and the dressing clung to the leaves with this almost milky quality to it. This humble salad is among the dishes we most vividly remember from that fantastic meal. Can you imagine, dreaming about a salad?
A vinaigrette essentially means a combination of fat, acid, and salt--usually oil and vinegar standing in for fat and acid--vigorously mixed so that they emulsify into one. Mustard is a common addition because it aids in the emulsion process, gives the dressing a creamy quality, and tastes great. Made correctly, a vinaigrette wakes up your tongue and feels round in the mouth. It is rich yet bright. As Thomas Keller's Bouchon cookbook notes, "you might even call it the perfect sauce."
Hold on a minute. The "perfect sauce"? Not hollandaise or mayonnaise or beurre noisette? There are people who devote their lives to sauce--sauciers--who are often considered the most talented cooks in the kitchen, the person Michael Ruhlman calls "the magician and sorcerer" in his book Elements of Cooking. Could it be that the perfect expression of their art lies in a salad dressing?