Tuesday, 6 April 2010

French salad a la Crete (Γαλλο-Κρητική σαλάτα)

Can I recreate the tastes of Paris in my own kitchen?

What is it about the food in Paris that made me like it more than what I am used to eating at home? The grass always seems greener on the other side, but the ingredients in my Parisian meals were not any fresher or of a higher quality than the ones I use on an everyday basis. I could not help noticing that the meals we had in France did not differ greatly from the meal I cook at home. What made the difference for me?
  • the sauces were thinner
  • the taste combinations were finer and more subtle
  • the beef in particular was generally more tender
  • the presentation of the meal on the diner's plate was much more refined, even when the food itself represented a homely meal
Most of the ingredients involved in the simple French cuisine that I tried on my trip can be found easily in Crete, so it is mainly a matter of how they are combined. Not only that, but many products grown/produced in Crete can replace some of the French ingredients, eg feta cheese instead of camembert, local varieties of cabbage and lettuce instead of endives and frisee. Even though Greek beef is not as tender as French beef, animal husbandry techniques are also changing in Crete (my butcher insists that the taste of Cretan beef is superlative in comparison to French beef!), so that only the cooking times may vary. Highly regional ingredients such as foie gras are not easily substitutable, but they are not a necessity in the preparation of daily meals. Where lard is used in French recipes, there can be no better alternative than extra virgin olive oil. It may not have the same texture, but it essentially does the same job as well as being healthier at the same time.

Chartier's endive salad was a simple dish consisting of crunchy quartered endives, a small block of camembert cheese placed in the middle of the plate, and a small amount of a creamy dressing which had been poured over the salad:

endive salad rocquefort
Endives, topped with a piece of rocquefort, with a light vinaigrette-mayonnaise salad; the endives were served as an entree in quarters which we chopped up, before mixing the salad to make it look more 'Greek'.

For my first attempt, I stuck as closely to the original ingredients as I possibly could, to give me more confidence to later when I wanted to find locally available ingredients that could replace the 'French' ones: endives are not produced in Crete, and neither is rocquefort (they were both imported).

Vinaigrette is basically an emulsion of oil and vinegar; instead of pouring oil and vinegar over a Greek salad, a vinaigrette can be used, which gives it a different taste using the same ingredients as a dressing. I shook 3:1 parts of olive oil:balsamic vinegar in a small jar, drizzled the emulsion onto the leaves, then left it in the fridge for the flavours to blend. It needed to be shaken again before I poured it over each section of endives:

salad d'endives au rocquefort
This salad was just as good as the one in the restaurant.

The next time I make this, I could use Greek feta cheese instead, as it easily replaces rocquefort. A good crisp cabbage can be used in place of the imported endives (until these are grown in Crete - at the rate of the globalisation of our food sector, I don't think it will take too long).

To be honest, I didn't like the colour of the dressing: it was too dark (due to the balsamic vinegar), so my next attempt at vinaigrette was made with 3:1 olive oil:white grape vinegar for a paler hue, with a tablespoon of mayonnaise, a small squirt of prepared mustard, some finely chopped garlic* and a dash of freshly ground pepper for extra taste.

home-made vinaigrette
My home-made salad dressing

I used this paler vinaigrette to make Chartier's frisee aux lardons salad:

frisee lardons

My version contained locally grown red curly lettuce (lollo) with lightly sauteed singlina (preserved pork) instead of bacon, which I cut up into small chunks and heated before adding to the salad:

red lettuce singlina salad
I can honestly say that my salad was better than the restaurant's version; the fresh ingredients and the home-made vinaigrette gave it a special aroma.

My "French salads a la Crete" were inspired by the new tastes I tried in France, and they are not radically different salads from the kind I am used to preparing on a regular basis. The taste combinations were somewhat novel for all of us, and added a new dimension to our regular diet.

The salad was an easy choice, n'est-ce pas? Now for those little meat parcels... (coming up in a future blog post).

* Since I used fresh garlic, the vinaigrette needed straining before being poured into the salad. Garlic powder can be used instead for a finer texture.

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