Who (or what) is preventing Angelenos from being allowed to enjoy the lunch that better suits us than anything in the world?
That lunch would be a salade composee. Think of it: a beautiful main course salad composed of various mini-salads -- celery remoulade, for instance, next to roasted red peppers with capers, tuna and white bean salad and cucumber-red onion salad. Or an arrangement of lobster salad, heirloom tomato salad with mint and baby frisee with goat cheese and walnut oil. Each bite is different and delicious, yet the various elements are fabulous if they happen to mingle in one bite. Try that with your iced tea.
Unlike in Paris, where you find composed salads on the menu of every little corner cafe, it's almost impossible to find one in this town. Even in the swankiest joints.
OK, there are salades nicoises galore, that's for sure. The nicoise is a textbook salade composee: dressed potatoes, sliced tomatoes, a bouquet of string beans, slices of hard boiled egg, nicoise olives, tuna in the center, all drizzled with vinaigrette. But tire of the nicoise in L.A., and you're reduced to chef's salads, Caesars and Cobbs. Honestly, how many chopped salads do we have to eat? Cut into tiny bits, all tossed together -- every bite is the same. And the salad goes on and on and on.
The Cobb salad, by the way, with its stripes of diced turkey and bacon and chopped egg and tomatoes and blue cheese, looks like a salade composee. But that's a masquerade: You don't want to eat it until you toss it -- at which point, it loses its composure.
Weirdly, you'd have to go to Las Vegas to find a chef who thinks composed salads worthy of a place on the menu.
At Daniel Boulud Brasserie, there are four appetizers listed under the heading salades composees: lobster, cantaloupe and watermelon with hearts of palm, basil and curry-lime vinaigrette; roasted beet salad with Cabrales blue cheese, endives and walnuts; beefsteak tomato with cervelle de canut tartine (Lyonnaise-style herbed farmer cheese on toast), radishes and fines herbes; and mesclun and crudites with herbes de Provence vinaigrette. In this case, "crudites" means endives, cherry tomatoes and curls of shaved fennel, baby carrots, radishes and asparagus.
A phone call to Boulud in New York reveals why he features composed salads on his menu: He loves them. "I eat it every day," he says, describing his standing lunch: a salad composed of "smoked salmon, avocado, a lot of greens, lemon juice, olive oil, herbs, crudites, a little bit of chopped eggs."
Boulud says salade composee can be a mix of hors d'oeuvres. "If you go to Lyons," he says, "they'll do a salade composee with all the different hors d'oeuvres you have, from shredded carrots to lamb's feet in mayonnaise." That would make it a mixed antipasto's kissin' cousin, but usually with some kind of greens.
You'd think they'd have composed salads at La Cachette, the Century City French restaurant that does a brisk lunch business. But though chef-owner Jean Francois Meteigner offers a rotisserie chicken salad with papaya, corn, carrot, red cabbage and avocado with harissa dressing, it's tossed, not composed. Ditto the warm Maine lobster salad with artichoke hearts and white truffle dressing. House-smoked whitefish salad with potato, caviar and baby greens? A red herring. (There is, doncha know, a nicoise, featuring house-poached albacore, white anchovies, heirloom tomatoes and pomegranate dressing.)
What gives, chef?
"Well," says Meteigner, "we do one for Thanksgiving" -- a crudite plate of beet salad with raspberry vinaigrette, carrot salad with cumin and raisins, celery remoulade, cannellini bean salad with mint and -- in the middle of the plate -- deviled eggs.
Hotel restaurants seem like prime composed-salad territory. But after visiting dozens of websites to look at menus and calling around when an item looked promising, no luck. Pedals Cafe at Shutters on the Beach in Santa Monica has a long list of main course salads -- a great excuse to swing by and sit on the patio on a Saturday afternoon. But alas, none are composed.
It all felt very suspicious. Especially when I found that though there's an entry in the French edition of Larousse Gastronomique for salade composee, the English translation has excised it.
I finally thought I'd found a hometown salade composee at Patina downtown. On the menu under second courses, there it was: "Jidori chicken breast salad with braised and raw baby vegetables, a Banyuls and smoked tomato vinaigrette."
I asked the waiter: Tossed, or composed on the plate?
Oh, it's composed, he said.
It was composed, all right, but it wasn't a salad, rather a sliced, sauteed chicken breast sitting atop some braised vegetables. There was a puddle of vinaigrette and a splash of sauce. But where were the raw vegetables? Where was the salad?
Then, suddenly, there it was, at Spago -- a lovely Japanese barbecue salmon salad with Japanese cucumbers, romaine, avocado, pickled ginger, daikon sprouts and ponzu sauce.
Still, as delicious as the Spago salad is, one measly version in a city of salad lovers is a sad, sad thing.
The solution? If we can't find composed salads in restaurants, at least we can make them at home. Last weekend I topped a few tender romaine leaves with some leftover sliced leg of lamb, a dollop of leftover ratatouille, a spoonful of hummus, sliced tomato and cucumber, a couple of sardines and dolmas from a can, freshened with lemon and vinaigrette drizzled over all.
Why don't we see more salades composees here, especially from French chefs, who ought to know better? You'd think they'd be as appealing to chefs, who can approach them creatively, as they are to diners. I asked Meteigner why he doesn't have one other than salade nicoise.
"You know what?" he said. "Maybe I should!"
Composed salad with tuna and cannellini beans
Total time: 25 minutes
4 small or 2 medium heads
lolla rossa or 2 heads butter lettuce
3 medium to large carrots
3 tablespoons chopped chervil
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon lemon juice, divided
7 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons olive oil, divided
Freshly ground white pepper
1 pint cherry tomatoes
1/2 hothouse cucumber
1 clove garlic, chopped fine
5 1/2 teaspoons red wine vinegar, divided
Freshly ground black pepper
1 (6-ounce) can imported light tuna in olive oil
1 (15-ounce) can cannellini beans
3/4 cup red onion, sliced 1/4 -inch thick
1/3 cup roughly chopped Italian parsley
1/4 cup nicoise olives
1. Wash and dry the lettuce. Wrap it in a towel and place it in the refrigerator.
2. Peel and grate the carrots on the medium hole of a box grater. Place in a bowl, add the chervil and dress with 4 teaspoons lemon juice, 2 tablespoons and 2 teaspoons olive oil, salt and white pepper to taste. Set aside.
3. Drop the tomatoes into boiling water. After 10 seconds, drain and shock in ice water. Using a small paring knife, pull the skin off each tomato. Place the peeled tomatoes in a medium bowl. Peel and seed the cucumber, cut in half lengthwise, and slice into half-moons about one-fourth-inch thick. Add the cucumber to the tomatoes, along with the garlic, one-half teaspoon red wine vinegar, one-eighth teaspoon salt, black pepper to taste and 1 tablespoon olive oil. Toss gently and set aside.
4. Drain the tuna and flake it into a medium bowl. Drain the cannellini beans, rinse them briefly in a colander, and add them to the tuna. Add the sliced red onion, the parsley, 1 tablespoon lemon juice, one-half teaspoon red wine vinegar, 1 tablespoon olive oil and black pepper to taste. Set aside.
5. Mix a little extra vinaigrette: Whisk a pinch of salt into 1 1/2 tablespoons vinegar. Whisk in 3 tablespoons olive oil and add black pepper to taste.
5. On four individual plates, arrange a bed of lettuce, tearing the leaves if desired. In the center of each, mound one-fourth of the cannellini-tuna mixture. Next to that, spoon one-fourth of the tomato-cucumber salad, and on the other side, one-fourth of the carrots. Place a few olives strategically next to the tomato-cucumber salad. Drizzle a little vinaigrette over the greens and serve immediately.
Note: Recipe from Spago executive chef Lee Hefter. He uses a heavy chef's knife to smash the vegetables for the ponzu sauce. Dashi is a soup stock made with dried bonito flakes, kombu and water; look for instant dashi in Japanese markets. Daikon sprouts and shiso leaves can also be found at Japanese markets.
1/4 jalapeno, seeded and smashed
1( 1/2 -inch) piece fresh ginger, peeled, cut into rounds and smashed
2 green onions, trimmed and smashed
1/2 cup soy sauce
3 tablespoons lime juice
3 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
3 tablespoons dashi
In a bowl, mix the jalapeno, ginger, green onions, soy sauce, lime juice, lemon juice, vinegar and dashi. Steep for at least several hours or up to two days. Strain and refrigerate until ready to use. Makes 1 1/4 cups.
Mirin reduction sauce
1 cup sake
1 cup mirin
1/4 cup soy sauce
1 garlic clove, smashed
1 tablespoon chopped green
1( 1/4 -inch) piece ginger, peeled and smashed
In a small skillet, combine the sake, mirin, soy sauce, garlic, green onion and ginger. Cook over medium heat until reduced to one-half cup, about 30 minutes. Strain and cool.
Salad and assembly
4 (6-ounce) wild salmon fillets, skin removed
Mirin reduction sauce
3 Japanese cucumbers, peeled and cut into 1/4 -inch by 1/4 -inch by 2-inch strips; keep in ice water bath until ready to use
1 1/3 avocados, peeled and cut
into 1/3 -inch slices
4 cups julienned romaine
lettuce (3 to 4 leaves cut into 1/4 -inch strips)
1/2 cup pickled ginger
1 cup daikon sprouts
4 shiso leaves (oba)
2 teaspoons sesame seeds
(a combination of black and toasted white sesame seeds)
1. Heat a grill or grill pan. Place the fillets on the grill and cook 4 minutes. Turn the fish over and brush with some of the mirin reduction sauce. Cook until they just start to feel firm to the touch, about 3 to 4 minutes.
2. Drain the cucumber strips and pat them dry. Place them in a bowl and stir in 2 tablespoons ponzu sauce.
3. Spoon 2 tablespoons ponzu sauce onto each of 4 plates. Place the cucumbers, avocado slices, romaine, pickled ginger and sprouts clockwise around the plate so they touch in the middle of the plate.
4. Put the shiso leaf in the middle of each plate where the ingredients meet. Place a fillet on the leaf, allowing the edge of the leaf to show. Drizzle the remaining ponzu sauce over the fish and salad ingredients, sprinkle with the sesame seeds and serve.
Roasted beets with Cabrales blue cheese, endives and walnuts
Total time: 1 hour, 20 minutes
Note: From Daniel Boulud of Daniel Boulud Brasserie in Las Vegas. Maytag blue cheese may be substituted for the Cabrales blue cheese. Baby mustard greens may be substituted for the beet greens.
4 small to medium red beets (about 9 ounces), tender greens reserved
3 small to medium golden beets (about 5 ounces)
1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 cup sherry vinegar
1/4 cup finely chopped chives
1 tablespoon finely chopped shallot
Freshly ground white pepper
1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Place the red and golden beets in two separate sealed foil packets and roast until tender, about 45 to 60 minutes. Once the beets are cool enough to handle, peel them. Cut the beets into wedges, keeping the two colors separate.
2. Whisk together the olive oil, sherry vinegar, chives and shallots and season to taste with salt and white pepper. Separately marinate the beets with the vinaigrette.
4 Belgian endives
4 red Belgian endives
Clean the endives and cut off the bottom inch of each. Slice off the stem, then thinly slice the cut-off end of each endive. Carefully separate the remaining leaves, wrap in wet paper towels and chill.
1/4 cup sherry vinegar
3/4 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/2 cup walnut oil
1/4 cup olive oil
1 teaspoon finely chopped
Freshly ground white pepper
Whisk together the vinegar and mustard and slowly drizzle in the walnut and olive oils until emulsified. Stir in the shallot and season to taste with salt and white pepper.
1 large red beet, peeled
1. Juice the beet in a juicer or puree in a blender. Place the juice or puree in a cheesecloth-lined strainer and strain or squeeze out the juice.
2. Place the juice in a small saucepan over medium heat, reduce to a syrup and set aside.
Roasted walnut halves
1/2 cup (4 ounces) walnut halves
1/4 cup ( 1/2 stick) unsalted butter
Place the walnuts and butter in a small baking dish and roast in a 350-degree oven until golden brown, about 15 to 20 minutes. Drain on paper towels and season with salt.
Garnish and assembly
1 cup gently torn beet or
4 ounces Cabrales blue cheese, crumbled
Roasted walnut halves
1. Sprinkle the walnut vinaigrette onto the endive leaves and the sliced endive and gently toss to coat. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Repeat with the beet greens or mustard greens, if using.
2. Alternate 3 wedges of red beets with 2 wedges of yellow beets in the center of each of 6 serving plates. Arrange 4 of the red endive leaves so the tips are pointing up, leaning on the beet wedges, and 4 of the yellow leaves pointing to the left, placed below the wedges on each plate. Crumble the blue cheese and divide among the 6 serving plates. Scatter 5 walnut halves around each plate with the torn beet greens. Drizzle the beet reduction over and around the salad and serve.