Sunday, 30 October 2011

Frisée aux lardons

My sojourn in Paris two decades ago, when with Parisian Boy, meant I discovered an absolute treasure trove of culinary delights. Holidays in France as a kid served as a fairly basic introduction to such things as proper frites - thin, crispy, salty and piping hot - served with bloody steaks that were chargrilled almost black on the outside and oozed almost-raw pinkness when cut open, baguettes and pain au chocolat still warm from the baker's oven, the vast array of cheeses, sirop de grenadine... I still remember the year we went camping near La Rochelle on the Biscay coast and seeing all the French campers grubbing around under hedges with buckets the morning after a heavy storm. They were hunting for snails.

Moving there, however, cranked me up several rungs on the food ladder. Parisian Boy introduced me to many regional dishes and taught me a lot about wine. He was also a damn fine cook and I learned quite a few recipes from him.

Frisée aux lardons, a traditional dish often on bistro menus, was one of his specialities - it's a very substantial and robust warm salad and we ate it at least once a fortnight, not least because it's cheap and we lived on a very tight budget. It's incredibly simple to make yet utterly addictive. The combination of bitter leaves, hot bacon and crunchy croutons drenched in a firey dressing is a real party on the palate. You must do this in the right order as once you get the pan on the stove you need to be quick to assemble the salad.

What you need:
4-5 leaves from a curly endive lettuce (frisée)
Half a packet of decently sized lardons
A couple of slices of bread, cut into cubes
A clove of garlic
Dijon mustard
Olive oil and white wine vinegar for the dressing
A pinch of sea salt

What to do:
First wash, dry and shred the endive leaves and put in a salad bowl. Next make the mustard dressing. Dump a couple of teaspoons of the mustard into a small bowl or wide tumbler and add a drizzle of the olive oil - use the teaspoon to beat the oil in to create an emulsion. Once you get going, you can add more oil each time until you have a generous amount of emulsion. You generally need about three times the oil to the amount of mustard. Check the taste - the mustard and oil should balance each other. Thin it with the vinegar to taste - it should be loose but not too runny. Add a tiny pinch of sea salt and the garlic, crushed through a press.

Heat a tiny drizzle of olive oil in a frying pan on a high heat and fry the lardons. As soon as the fat begins to run off the bacon, add the cubed bread to make croutons. The bread should soak up the bacon fat as it fries. Keep frying everything until the bread crisps and colours and the lardons are golden.

Quickly assemble everything - tip the lardons and croutons, plus as much of the bacon fat as you can scrape off, out of the frying pan onto the frisée, pour the mustard dressing over and toss everything together. Eat immediately, while the bacon is still hot. And if you're making it for yourself alone, eat it straight from the salad bowl! (Just double up the ingredients if you have a guest.)

Top with a poached egg, like they do in the bistros, if you are very hungry.

Cook's tips:
Frisée can be quite hard to find in the UK, unlike in France where it is on every vegetable stall at every market. I was lucky enough to find one a couple of days ago at my local market - for just 50p. Use the inner white leaves for this - they are curlier and hold the other ingredients well. A good substitute is radicchio or any other bitter leaf.

Lardons are pretty easy to find these days - most supermarkets stock them now, alongside the bacon. Otherwise ask a butcher to sell you some bacon in the piece and cut it into chunky strips yourself. Don't use pancetta - its delicate flavour will be lost in the more robust tastes of the dijon mustard and bitter leaves.

Lardons can be quite salty so go easy on the salt in the dressing. In all honesty, I often leave the salt out as the bacon provides more than enough for me.

The garlic is a must but if you can't tolerate it raw, then crush it into the frying pan with the croutons and lardons for the last couple of minutes so that it cooks a little. I usually add any scrapings from the garlic press at this stage for that extra touch.

This is a great way to use up leftover bread. In Paris we would hack bits of stale baguette into chunks for the croutons, perfect for this salad's peasant origins. I prefer wholemeal bread made with rye or spelt if I can get it - sliced white simply won't do for this.