Look For Beautiful Ingredients
Someone once said we eat with our eyes first, which is kind of an annoying phrase but true. Never under-estimate the wow factor of a few beautiful ingredients like the french haricot verts (arh-ee-koh vair) and artisan lettuces I found at the store this week. Haricot verts are simply a smaller and thinner version of regular green beans with really cool pointy ends. Don't cut off the ends -they're part of the appeal. The beans are very tender compared to larger green beans and don't take long to cook - you want them to be crisp-tender.
I've never seen such deep red lettuce before. There was enough lettuce in this container for at least four huge salads and it was really fresh. It all got a quick cold rinse and spin in the salad spinner, then off to the refrigerator wrapped in paper towels and sealed in a plastic bag to stay fresh. If your lettuce is slightly wilted, this treatment will even refresh it back to crisp again.
I always keep my eye out for beautiful and unusual ingredients (especially produce) whenever I'm at the farmer's market or stores like Whole Foods, Trader Joe's or the local high-end grocery store. I file any discovered treasures away in memory until I come across a recipe that would showcase them. For example, I found the most fabulous teeny-tiny deep red carrots at the farmer's market last year that I plan to showcase in something when I find them again this summer. (The Lawyer always asks me how I can remember stuff like that. He, who can quote winners and scores from NCAA tournaments from 10 years ago. Men.)
I like to save money on groceries as much as anyone, so when I plan meals for the week I buy as much as possible at the local discounter and then head to the higher-end store for a few special ingredients such as these. You're still saving money compared to going to a restaurant, and eating a lot healthier too. Speaking of healthier, warm weather is coming and so are shorts and swim suits. Great time for salads, don't you think?
This type of salad is called a composed salad because it's, well, composed as opposed to tossed all together. If you have great ingredients, taking the time to arrange them will make your salad look more beautiful. Group ingredients side by side to make the most of contrasting colors. Leaving ingredients whole (such as the haricot verts) also makes the salad more spectacular - the diners can cut everything up and toss it all together if they want (after they stop admiring it, of course). I debated about leaving the walnuts whole also, but they're kind of difficult to chop up with a table knife and fork so I compromised by leaving them in large pieces instead. Flying walnuts would undoubtedly be amusing but also messy.
Another tip about making pretty salads - wait until the meat is fully cooled (and preferably refrigerated for a few hours) before slicing for the most perfect slices.
Enough about making food pretty, it has to taste great too. As with many other foods, one of the most attractive aspects of this salad is its interplay of textures and flavors - juicy chicken, crunchy walnuts, creamy cheese and crisp fresh beans all brought together with a tart lemon-Dijon dressing. If you don't have the time or inclination to search out fancy ingredients the salad will certainly still taste just as good with regular green beans and a bag of salad greens. You can also use another kind of cheese if you prefer - I used Monterey Jack but Colby, goat cheese, Fontina or feta will also work well.
What makes this salad french? The lemon-mustard dressing, fresh thyme, walnuts, green beans and chicken are all traditional french ingredients plus the emphasis on visual appeal is very french. It tastes completely delicious and it's very healthy, plus you can prepare the walnuts, chicken, vinaigrette and beans in advance so all you have to do when you're ready to eat is arrange everything on the plate and drizzle with the vinaigrette. Yum. Salad never looked so classy.
French Chicken Salad
For the salad dressing:
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
¼ cup olive oil
1 tablespoon minced shallots
1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme, plus more for garnish
For the salad:
2 large boneless skinless chicken breasts
¼ cup soy sauce
¼ cup olive oil
Freshly ground pepper
16 oz haricot verts (French green beans)
1 1/3 cups Monterey Jack (or Fontina, Colby, or feta) cheese, cut into small cubes
1 cup walnuts, toasted and coarsely chopped
Red leaf lettuce
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees and line a baking pan with foil. Place the chicken breasts in the pan, and brush both sides with soy sauce and olive oil. Sprinkle both sides with pepper. Roast to an internal temperature of 160 degrees (165 degrees after resting a few minutes), about 20 minutes. Cool completely in the pan, then place the chicken breasts and pan drippings in a sealable plastic bag. Shake the bag to coat the chicken breasts with drippings, then place in the refrigerator for an hour or two.
Combine the mustard and vinegar in a medium bowl. Gradually whisk in oil. Add shallots and thyme, then set aside.
Cook beans in large pot of boiling salted water until crisp-tender, about 4 minutes for haricot verts or 5 minutes for regular green beans. Drain and immediately place in a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking process. Drain again and pat dry. (Can be prepared 1 day ahead. Cover chicken and beans separately and refrigerate.)
Remove the chicken from the refrigerator and thinly slice crosswise. Add a small amount of dressing to the beans and toss to coat. Place the leaf lettuce on plates, then top with groupings of cheese cubes, beans, chicken slices and walnuts. Drizzle the salad with additional dressing and top with the reserved thyme.