Out of the Frying Pan And Into the Antipodes--
Recipes & reminiscences from 70-plus years of New Zealand & Australian food; with some of the loves, some of the lovers, and some of the culinary & social history.
(A few names & places have been changed to protect the guilty)

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Killing Vegetables or Salad Heaven? La Frisée

Killing Vegetables Or Salad Heaven?
La Frisée

1973. It’s a frosty autumn evening in Paris. Gégé takes me down the road to the market to get something for dinner. As usual, the little market stalls are glowing with light, the wonderfully fresh produce on his favourite greengrocer’s stall like bright jewels. Not these or those—he takes me inside the tiny shop.

Baisser le zinc?
It has now dawned that these little shops are what must have been meant by the incomprehensible expression “baisser le zinc” in those serious French literary works I had to read for my M.A. Baisser le… Huh? My dictionary was no use whatsoever. What they are, you see, are tiny permanent shops, a fraction the size of the ones I’m used to back home, just wide enough for a counter running lengthwise down the shop, away from the entrance, and floor space for maybe two ranks of customers. No bigger, in fact, than a garage back home. And that’s the clue. Le zinc is the big roller door they pull down, completely closing off the shop, at the end of the morning’s or evening’s trading. Large amounts of their wares are displayed on stands outside the shop, the pavement being plenty wide enough for it, and all of this is brought inside at closing time. Then down comes the door, and it’s locked at its foot.
    Just lately ram-raiding of Aussie shops has been in the news. Moans from shopkeepers about having to keep replacing their “security”—at the most, a light grille over the large plate glass window, call that security? One hefty garage roller door would do it. Never mind the daft romantic image of Paris purveyed to the Anglophone community by the popular media for something like 150 years: the French are characterised by their common sense.

La Frisée
Gégé’s favourite greengrocer, a burly, dark-haired, ruddy-cheeked man in an apron, greets him happily and unerringly identifies me, very proud of himself, as l’Écossaise. Er—yeah. Close but no cigar—I do have some Scottish ancestors. And as it’s a cold night my cheeks are pink, the square jaw could be Scottish (it’s certainly not French) and I’m wearing my heavy scarlet winter coat, years old but the heaviest coat I own, and, uh, yeah. Pretty good going, really, for a man who’s lived in a tiny quartier of Paris all his life and speaks almost incomprehensible parigot.
    Gégé inspects the salad vegetables—he always buys them fresh right before he intends eating them. And they are fresh, incredibly fresh. They must have been trucked in before dawn to the wholesale markets (no longer Les Halles, as in Zola, there’s a big hole where they used to be, familiarly known as le trou des Halles), and bought by this man shortly after dawn. Gégé points out the ones he fancies.
    Palest yellowy-lime curlicues glow within a circlet of darker lime fronds, shading out to dark green… Gosh. It’s the most beautiful vegetable I ever saw! What is it?

La Frisée: Curly Endive or Escarole
    It’s la frisée, of course!
    I’m none the wiser. We don’t have that back home. Is it a lettuce? Unfortunately I don’t phrase this right and he informs me it’s not a laitue, it’s une frisée! Er—right. A laitue is the rather soft-leaved, tender pale green lettuce he sometimes buys: I’ve had that. So isn’t there a generic word for lettuce? I don’t ask, just watch while Gégé selects the best one.
    The subsequent salad has to be tasted to be believed. Out of this world!

 Salade de frisée
1 good-sized frisée (curly endive) with plenty of pale inner leaves
3-4 tablespoons of Gégé’s vinaigrette (below)
1. Pull the curly endive apart and wash the leaves really well, making sure you get all the grit off. Discard the very coarse outer leaves and any bent ones. Trim the ends. Drain and dry carefully. At this stage the leaves may be put into a plastic bag and kept in the fridge for no more than an hour until just ready to serve.
2. When ready for the salad course, tear the larger leaves into two or three pieces cross-wise (do NOT cut with a knife). Put leaves into a large salad bowl which seems too big for them. Add 3-4 tablespoons of the vinaigrette, well shaken. Take to the table without tossing.
3. Just before serving, toss well.
Serves 4-6.

One of my favourite salads, but you have to like bitter things. It’s especially good after a heavy winter main course such as Pieds de porc aux lentilles.

For God’s sake don’t follow the example of those sickening cookery gurus on TV and toss the salad with your hands. Use salad servers or a large spoon and a fork. Warm hands are sudden death to fresh green leaves. Not to mention the fact that they’re covered in germs.

Gégé’s Vinaigrette
Gégé never bothered to measure the quantities, of course. The proportions are about 5 to 1, and this amount (about 1 1/2 cups) may be kept indefinitely in a cupboard. Never put it in the fridge.
1 1/4 cups olive oil
1/4 cup good wine vinegar (e.g. Belgian red wine vinegar)
1 rounded teaspoon salt
1 1/2 good teaspoons Dijon mustard (e.g. Maille)
Use a bottle (or jar) with a really tight lid. Put in the vinegar, then the salt and mustard. Put the lid on and shake hard until ingredients are amalgamated. Then add the oil. Seal tightly to keep.
To serve:
Just before you take the salad to the table, shake the bottle hard until the oil and vinegar mix to what looks like a cloudy amalgam. Add about 1 to 2 tablespoons of the dressing per person to the salad (depending on how large the salad is.) If the salad is a leafy one, don’t toss it until it is on the table ready to be eaten.

Don’t kid yourself: this is the only way to make good vinaigrette dressing. The addition of any other ingredient at all turns it into an abortion.

Never mind Jane Grigson’s claims for its ancestry, the British today (including the citizens of the Commonwealth) cannot make vinaigrette! Here is what she says:

"We call this most useful of sauces, French dressing or vinaigrette, and occasionally talk about it as if it was something Elizabeth David brought to England ... at the end of the 1940s. In fact it has been around since the eighteenth century, and Hannah Glasse gives what might seem a very modem salad - broccoli, boiled and cold with a dressing of oil and vinegar. ‘Garnish with Stertion buds’ (Nasturtium buds were pickled as a substitute for capers). She is referring to purple or green-sprouting broccoli, which does make an excellent salad."
(Jane Grigson. English food, 1974. Penguin ed. p. 290)

I’m sure it does make an excellent salad, but Jane doesn’t give a recipe for it—nor any for broccoli in that book, that I can see. Her recipe for "French dressing" is AWFUL: it contains sugar and the "French mustard" is optional.

    The English-language recipes for vinaigrette dressing don’t get better over the next four decades.

More Horrors: Killing Curly Endive
And la frisée? Well, in the 1970s, at the time Gégé introduced me to it, it was unknown in Australasia. I have found a recipe for it in an English cookery book from 1891—but mind you, it was a vegetarian book, the contemporary readers would have expected its recipes to include some odd vegetables. “Lettuce” was iceberg lettuce in New Zealand and Australia for years: curly endive, together with other fancy varieties, pretty well vanished from the Anglophone consciousness for a century. Small wonder when you consider what we were advised to do with it back then!
    Here’s the beauty of my recipe collection. You thought the recipes for killing cabbage were bad?
    You’re not wrong. But get a load of this:

Endive Salad.
Endives come into season long before lettuces, and are much used abroad for making salads. The drawback to endive is that it is tough, and the simple remedy is to boil it.
Take three or four white-heart endives, throw them into boiling water slightly salted. When they get tender take them out and instantly throw them into cold water, by which means you preserve their colour.
When quite cold, take them out again, drain them, dry them thoroughly, and pull them to pieces with the fingers. Now place them in a salad-bowl, keeping the whitest part as much as possible at the top.
Place some hard-boiled eggs round the edge, and sprinkle a little chopped blanched parsley over the white endive. You can, if you like, put a few spikes of red beet-root between the quarters of eggs.
It is a great improvement to rub the salad-bowl with a bead of garlic, or you can rub a crust of bread with a bead of garlic, and toss this lightly about in the salad when you mix it.
(A.G. Payne. Cassell’s Vegetarian Cookery. London; Melbourne, Cassell, 1891)

What can ya say? Shoot me now—exactly.

Modern Horrors: Going Up-Market
In the new millennium, lo! Curly endive suddenly reappears in Australasian cuisine—and you’ve certainly been able to buy it in the Australian supermarkets for some years, now: far too coarsely leaved (not having been tied up when growing to blanch its heart), and then martyred in tightly tied bunches. The cookery gurus are still not sure what to do with it, though.

“Bistro Salad,” the name being pretty fair warning, appears in Donna Hay Magazine, Issue 42 (Dec. 2008-Jan. 2009). The inspired creator writes:

“This French classic usually made with lardons of bacon and a poached egg is given a light touch with crispy pancetta and a vinegary garlic dressing.”

French classic?? Where do they get these ideas from? And by the way, “vinegary” is right: if you use “1/4 cup (60ml) white wine vinegar” to “2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil” you will taste nothing but vinegar!

Two years later Epicurious.com favours us with: “Escarole with Bacon, Dates, and Warm Walnut Vinaigrette,” from Bon Appétit, February 2011, by Myra Goodman and Sarah LaCasse. If it takes two of them to produce it, it ain’t gonna be good—rule of thumb. “Escarole” is an American word for curly endive, and the Americans produce several varieties of it. At least this recipe, over-elaborate though it is, knows a bit more about vinaigrette dressing: here it’s “1/3 cup walnut oil or extra-virgin olive oil” to “2 tablespoons red wine vinegar”. I thought the salad might be quite edible, up to this point:

“Gradually add warm dressing to salad, tossing to coat.”

    WHAT? Warm anything on fresh greens wilts the leaves! Are they MAD?
    Apparently, yes. Writing kweezine does that to ya.