There must be something deep within the collective French psyche that intuitively grasps how to create a good salad. How else can you explain the fact that you can get an excellent one just about anywhere in France? A meal without salad, as a first course or to refresh the palate after the main course, is nearly unheard of there.
I can't help but wonder where and why American salads went wrong. Though the iceberg wedge remains popular nationwide, and maligning it is tantamount to treason, we can do better. Most restaurants offer a plate of chopped mixed greens and a choice of gooey commercial dressings. Even high-end restaurants give the job of salad-making to the least experienced cooks.
To master the art of preparing salad, which is not really all that difficult, we should look to the French.
The key to a great Gallic salad is vinaigrette. The simplest contains olive oil, wine vinegar, salt and pepper, whisked together in the proper proportions so that it is pleasantly tart but allowing the flavor of the oil to shine. Start with a basic green salad, and learn to dress it with a delicate hand. Your leaves should be glistening, not drowning.
Once you have a command of vinaigrette, revisit these traditional salads, which are exemplary when done right.
You may think frisee aux lardons (curly endive with bacon and poached egg) is a dinosaur; when made with care, it is a thing of beauty. Look for curly endive with tender, blanched centers, then be ruthless; the darker green outer leaves must be removed. You want to expose the pale inner leaves and leave them looking as natural as possible, so don't chop them.
In France, precut lardons are sold in any supermarket, though they are rarely smoked like our bacon. The home cook can slice unsmoked pancetta, or quickly simmer slivers of smoked bacon in water to minimize the smoky flavor. When you fry the lardons, take care to brown them lightly so that they are crisp, with a little give. (A common mistake is to make them too dark and crunchy.)
To dress the salad, you need a perky vinaigrette with a little garlic and a dab of mustard. Center a poached egg on each plate, and scatter a spoonful of warm lardons around it. A few garlic croutons make a smart addition.
For leeks vinaigrette, look for smallish leeks, which are more tender and more closely resemble asparagus spears. The French call this dish "asperges du pauvre," the poor man's asparagus.
After trimming, each leek gets a lengthwise slit and a good swish in a basin of warm tap water to rid it of sand. Simmer the leeks in salted water for 8-10 minutes, until softened and easily pierced with a paring knife. This is important; a crunchy leek is unpleasant. Drain the leeks, and hold at room temperature for up to several hours -- do not refrigerate, or they'll lose their delicate texture.
To serve, simply smear the leeks with vinaigrette; I make a thick, sharp rather mustardy one to complement the sweetness of the leeks. Then garnish as you wish. I like capers, hard-cooked egg, olives and cornichons.
If you grew up on grated carrot salad with canned pineapple or raisins, I can nearly guarantee you will prefer the French version, called carottes rapees. It is simply grated carrots dressed with a simple vinaigrette; a lemony one works well. I prefer to cut the carrots into a fine julienne rather than use a box grater, which makes them a bit raggedy. The julienne carrots have a more appealing texture, and they look gorgeous piled on a platter, scattered with chives.
It's not necessary to stay absolutely traditional with this salad. I often veer toward North African with it, adding pinches of cumin, cinnamon and hot pepper. Nor would it be out of place to introduce Vietnamese seasonings such as cilantro, mint, fish sauce and lime.
But sometimes a classic salad, masterly executed, is just what you want.
New York Times columnist David Tanis is a former Chez Panisse chef.