Salads have always conjured up fresh, healthy, youthful thoughts — and when one considers the expression “salad days” (in French, les années de jeunesse), it makes us all want to consume more salads to remain eternally fresh and youthful.
I don’t remember the first salad I ever ate, but no doubt it was a soft green lettuce from my mother’s garden in West Allis, Wisconsin. Salads have always held an important place in my repertoire, and in my garden in Provence I sow new seeds every few weeks throughout the summer, insuring a glorious choice of different greens each day.
If you look at varied healthy, light ingredients in my latest book, you’ll understand the appeal of salad. Green beans and avocado, asparagus, zucchini, crab and lobster, corn and feta, and of course plenty of healthy greens, ranging from spinach to watercress, salade frisée, and dandelions. And always, an avalanche of tomatoes: in soups, in salads, paired with bacons and lettuce for open-faced sandwiches known as tartines, and teamed up with corn, bacon, feta, and avocado for a colorful and exciting salad.
Salads are not exclusively linked to greens, however. I enjoy serving them alongside delicious bread-based recipes – for example, ham and cheese bread, a classic Alsatian onion and bacon tart, and a stunning tomato and mustard tart. And they make great appetizers as well.
Soup and salad is also a classic pairing. So I love to create summer soups with zucchini, heirloom tomatoes, as well as peas. Come cooler weather, and I will dig into a watercress soup with poached oysters or a soothing shellfish veloute´ sprinkled with a kaffir lime dust.
Adding meat to a meal does not have to translate as heavy or calorie-laden. Some of my favorites include Walter’s Lime and Lemongrass-Cured Beef, inspired by trips to Vietnam, as well as Rare-Roasted Beef with Rosemary, Mint, and Tarragon, a dish inspired by a summer lunch at the famed Beaumainere in Provence. It’s also fun to use leftover leg of lamb in a lamb salad with potatoes, peppers, tarragon, and cherry tomatoes.
Salads as meals can be thought out days in advance, or tossed together at the last minute with ingredients from the refrigerator and pantry. A roast chicken from the market can be transformed in so many quick salads – for example ginger and sesame chicken with glass noodles, chicken salad with peas, feta, and mint, and my favorite: chicken salad with green beans and tahini-yogurt-lemon dressing .
Salads are for all seasons. The only rule is to keep it fresh, colorful, healthy, and add a bit of crunch: from seeds and nuts, touches of cubed bacon, bits of tangy cheese, or firm vegetables such as carrots, celery, cucumbers, and spring onions. I encourage you to try my recipe below — perfect for spring!
Crab, Avocado, and Quinoa Salad with Technicolor Tomatoes
Color and texture play such an important role in our enjoyment of food, and the color combination of pink, white, and green is one that I turn to time after time. This colorful crab salad has it all: it’s pretty, tangy, crunchy at once. I use an especially hardy variety of tarragon from my garden — called Texas or Mexican Tarragon — one that grows well in dry climates like Texas and Provence, and add a touch Moroccan mint, a very fragrant form of spearmint that is used to make tea. My selection of fresh cherry tomatoes includes the Green Grape, Red Pear, and Yellow Mirabelle. This salad as a meal packs a powerful amount of protein and is very low in fat, making it a household favorite. Serve with my yogurt and lemon dressing.
Ingredients (six servings):
3 cups water
chicken or vegetable stock
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
1 cup quinoa, well rinsed
2 fresh or dried bay leaves
1 pound (2 cups) fresh cooked lump crabmeat
1/4 cup minced fresh tarragon leaves
1/2 cup minced fresh mint leaves
1 large ripe avocado, halved, pitted, peeled, and cubed
2 cups mixed red, yellow, and green cherry or pear tomatoes, halved
1. In a large saucepan, bring the water or stock to a boil over high heat. Add the salt, quinoa, and bay leaves. Bring back to a boil and then reduce the heat to low, cover the pan and simmer until the quinoa is tender and translucent, about 15 minutes. (When quinoa is perfectly tender, each grain bursts, sporting a tiny white sprout.) Drain any remaining liquid and return the quinoa to the pan. Cover the pan with a clean dish towel, replace the lid, and let it sit undisturbed for 10 minutes. Remove and discard the bay leaves. Fluff. Let cool.
2. Place the quinoa in a large, shallow bowl. Add the crabmeat, tarragon, mint, and avocado. Coat with just enough dressing to evenly coat the ingredients lightly and evenly. In another bowl, toss the tomatoes with just enough dressing to coat them lightly and evenly as well.
3. Mound the quinoa salad on the plates. (Alternatively, place a 4-inch mold at one edge of the plate and spoon a portion of the salad in the mold, pressing down lightly. Remove the mold.) Arrange the tomatoes alongside the quinoa salad. Repeat for the remaining salads, and serve.
Wine suggestion: This salad has a fine complexity, an ideal match for one of my favorite whites in the cellar, the Domaine de la Mordorée Lirac Blanc, a mesmerizing blend of Grenache Blanc, Viognier, Roussanne, Marsanne, Picpoul, Clairette, and Bourboulenc. Mesmerizing, yes, but not confusing. Just a great drinking white!
Editor’s Note: Patricia Wells is the author of the new cookbook Salad As A Meal. A journalist, author, and teacher, she runs a popular cooking school, At Home with Patricia Wells, in Paris and Provence. The French government has honored her as a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, recognizing her contribution to French culture. A former New York Times reporter, she is the only foreigner and the only woman to serve as restaurant critic for a major French publication, L’Express. For more than twenty-five years she was the global restaurant critic for the International Herald Tribune.