Monday, November 2, 2009

Butter Lettuce and Herb Salad

I was looking for a green salad to accompany a fairly rich dinner we were cooking for friends last weekend, and I happened upon this delicate, elegant salad of butter lettuce and herbs from Thomas Keller (of The French Laundry fame).

The simplicity of the salad surprised me a bit coming from Chef Keller. His food is not fussy but it is also rarely this unassuming. Jeff and I were lucky enough to discover the French Laundry before it became impossible to secure a reservation to dine at what is now considered the best restaurant in America. We were walking around Yountville and noticed a pretty brick building that was clearly a business of some kind but had no name on it. Something about it pulled us in, and we walked into the garden and discovered a charming little restaurant. We decided to try it out and made reservations for the next night. (This was in the mid 80’s when it was owned by Don and Sally Schmitt who were on the forefront of the locally grown, organic food movement that has become the hallmark of California cuisine.)

It was our first really memorable dining experience. We had eaten in nice restaurants in San Francisco and other cities, but this was unlike anything we'd ever experienced from the moment we walked through the gate. As we waited for our table we sat in a lovely little garden sipping an aperitif amongst the lightly-scented roses. Before we were seated they showed us where the restaurant grew its own greens, herbs and seasonal vegetables. The floral arrangements were so stunning they took my breath away; I knew we were in for a treat. The meal was exquisite--the fresh flavors and artful presentation wowed us. Jeff loved his scallop dish so much he asked how to make it, and they took us into the kitchen to show him. We were dazzled by the whole experience. Thomas Keller bought the restaurant in 1994 and said recently in the New York Times magazine, “We built our philosophy on that core menu.”

This salad would go well with anything, but I think it is an especially good compliment to a rich, complex main course. The rosette presentation is pretty and easy to do and can be assembled earlier in the day. We substituted a classic vinaigrette for the French Laundry’s “house vinaigrette” used by Keller, which we thought was too dull (to each their own!).
Butter Lettuce with Herbs Salad

Serves 4
2 heads Butter lettuce (also known as Bibb lettuce)
2 tbls. shallots, minced
2 tbls. chives, minced
¼ cup flat leaf parsley
¼ cup tarragon leaves
¼ cup chervil leaves

1/3 cup olive oil
2 tbls. sherry wine vinegar
1 tbls. Dijon mustard
1 tbls. shallots minced
½ tsp. sugar
Salt and pepper

Carefully cut out the core of each head of lettuce and separate the leaves. Wash them in cold water being sure to get all of the grit and dirt off. Pat dry. Arrange the leaves on individual plates into a rosette formation, putting the dark leaves down first and piling the smaller, lighter colored ones in concentric circles on top until you have a yellow peak. De-stem and wash the herbs and pat dry. When you’re ready to serve, sprinkle the herbs and minced shallots over the individual salads. Mix the vinegar, mustard and shallots together and slowly whisk in the olive oil. Drizzle a small amount over the salads. Serve immediately.

Tips and Tidbits
Chervil is a member of the parsley family and can be hard to find. When I asked the produce guy if there was any chervil he said he could order it and would have it the next day. If you can’t get chervil, just use a bit more parsley. Tarragon has a very distinct, almost licorice flavor so use it sparingly; don’t feel like you have to use the full quarter cup of tarragon.
You can arrange the salads earlier, cover them with plastic wrap and store them in the refrigerator until ready to serve.
You can also make the vinaigrette earlier in the day and refrigerate it. Mix it up again  before putting on the salads.

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