Sunday, 11 November 2007

Autumn Leaves

I’m perennially uninspired when it comes to green salads. I can—and do--make an above-average Nicoise, a zingy corn-tomato-cilantro number and a smoked paprika-tinged carrot salad which is both rich and refreshing. But when it comes to leaves—which all too often fill the vegetable quotient of the meal—I rarely get beyond tearing open a bag (or, here in France, pulling out the salad spinner) and whisking up a vaguely mustardy vinaigrette. It’s certainly nothing to start a meal with, and it’s all too easy to bypass after a filling main course, or, as is embarrassingly common, I just can’t be bothered to do any more dishes. Add in a more than a few instances of eating dry leaves, rabbit-like, in a final attempt to up the vitamin quotient, and it’s unsurprising that the thought of salad evokes little excitement.

Behold, however, a glorious exception—or, looked at a different way, an early but significant success in my re-education.

It began with the unplanned purchase of two pigeon breasts—enough to feel like I was experimenting with something new, but insufficient to actually serve as a main course. We dithered, we discussed, I regretted buying them at all, then regretted not having bought two more. Eventually we came up with the idea of a sweet-savoury salad, combining slices of lightly seared meat, sautéed fruit and a handful of nuts. We even agreed to break out the butter—an exceptionally rare event—in order to cook the apple slices.

While the apples slowly softened and carmelised, we toasted some pine nuts and heated a heavy pan with a fine shimmer of oil. A few minutes on a high heat gave the flesh a burnished crust while still retaining a moist interior. The meat rested, and we made a simple vinaigrette with olive oil and sherry vinegar, after which the rosy slices of pigeon, apples and nuts were mixed with the soft leaves. It was a triumph—of seasonality, of creativity, and, most importantly, of taste.

*No French title this time. The language of Moliere and Rabelais refers to these as "les feuilles mortes,” or, “the dead leaves”—perhaps not the most alluring description for a salad.

Rather than a recipe, I would suggest the following template:
-a small piece of meat (perhaps ½ a dinner portion) per person—pigeon, duck, pheasant or another game bird, either roasted and taken off the bone or sautéed and then sliced
-softened and carmelised autumn fruit—apple or pear (choose varieties that hold their shape when cooked). Poached quince could be substituted, with a bit of the syrup added to the dressing. These are all lovely when they are still a bit a warm.
-toasted nuts—walnuts, hazelnuts or pine nuts all complement the autumnal fruit
-dressing—a vinegar that is slightly sweet but not overwhelming (too me, balsamic seems too assertive to fit here), paired with olive and/or nut oil
-leaves—nothing too spiky in taste or texture. You might try lambs lettuce (mache), butter lettuce or mixed leaves which don’t contain too many bitter or crunchy pieces.

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