There was this one night we had dinner together, when we all found our way into the kitchen from our separate places–one from soccer, one from swimming, one from work–all at the same time.
That night, together, we were more than the sum of our parts.
A husband, a wife, a daughter, a son. Usually, on weeknights, we spin in our separate orbits, with our own interests, desires, events, activities, chores, work, projects, needs. But that night, the spinning stopped, and we focused on each other when we weren’t expecting to and the result was pure joy. Which is, of course, why people make such a fuss about family dinner. Because it can be a gorgeous, grounding thing. Sure, it can be hard and hair-raising. But it is a thing worth fighting for. A thing worth preserving when you can. A thing that can be composed, a thing that can bring composure.
This is the salad–a composed salad–that brought us together. The metaphor is not lost on me. This kind of salad brings together a counter full of fresh, seasonal–and maybe disparate ingredients. Each thing is prepared uniquely, then dressed individually. On its own, the parts of this salad can be very nice. A perfectly ripe tomato wedge; a five-minute egg with its golden yolk cooked-just-so; a pile of matchstick thin and crisp beans. But give each ingredient its rightful attention, dress each item with care, arrange it all on an over- large plate, layering the colors and textures like a still life, and then you have a thing of beauty. From many things, you have composed one. I’m not promising that this meal will make harmony in your family, but maybe it can remind you that such a thing exists–and that it can even be can created out of chaos.
California Composed Salad
The beauty of this salad, which is my northern Californian take on a classic French Nicoise is that you can use whatever grows in season in your area. In addition to the ingredients listed below, you can use radishes, baby new potatoes, broad beans, fresh shelled peas, pea pods, pea shoots, any kind of cucumber, little gem lettuce, grilled asparagus, olives, grilled salmon, even long strips of bacon. Whatever you have, whatever you love. It all comes together with a tangy, mustard-y dressing.
French green beans, cooked in heavily salted water until tender-crisp
Butter lettuce, washed and dried
Tomatoes, cut into wedges
Fresh ears of corn, cut in half or in quarters, cooked until just tender and cooled
Tuna–fresh, seared or jarred filets, in olive oil
Five minute eggs, halved or quartered
For the dressing, whisk equal parts red or white wine vinegar with dijon mustard, add 1 clove crushed or chopped garlic and let sit for 10-20 minutes. Then whisk in 3 parts olive oil and about 1 tablespoon very finely chopped shallots. Salt and pepper to taste. Taste and adjust the mustard, vinegar, oil–consider adding lemon juice or capers–as you like.
To cook the eggs, cover eggs with water and bring to a boil. Cook for ONLY 5 minutes, then immediately remove from heat, drain, and bang the eggs against the side of the pot to just crack the shells. Cover with cold water to cool. Peel and cut into halves or quarters.
In a low, shallow bowl, toss each ingredient–except the eggs and corn–separately, beginning with the lettuce and ending with the tomatoes. The idea is to have each ingredient maintain its integrity. You don’t want the tomato seeds on the lettuce. Arrange everything on a plate. Admire. Enjoy.