How a salad redeemed Paris

Ah Paris…

Where every moment was filled with romance; where we leisurely wandered the deserted streets, sniffing roses, and sampling cheeses; where every dish we ate was a delight to the palate, refined to the point of perfection and most certainly unforgettable…is what I wish I could say about this city. But, sadly, this was not my Paris. When we traveled there last summer, our expectations were average. Gabe had been before, and I had not. Gabe’s experience was as a teenager in school and mostly one of under-appreciation. I had studied French for 5 years and was semi-obsessed with the country. For much of my life I had desired to visit this place that seemed to ooze with such inspiration. And when I had finally arrived, things were…different. I’d say that I had reasonable expectations about what I would experience. It is a bustling city after all. Larger cities tend to mean noise, people hurrying about, obnoxious vendors, scammers. I knew all this, and yet a small idealistic part of me had hoped that my three days there would be just as the movies – mellow streets lined with twinkling lampposts, locals sipping espresso and wine at tiny cafes while the song of a concertinist floats through the air. But that just wasn’t the reality. Reality equalled streets that smelled of urine and feces and so packed with tourists that one could hardly walk, a Seine river whose banks were lined with drunken French teenagers flashing you their white arses, and cafes selling some of the worst food that I have eaten.

I knew that there were many incredible restaurants out there, but for one reason or another, they had all been just out of reach for us during our brief stay. We spent two days walking up and down the narrow streets, zipping from one corner of the city to the next. While we did see some fantastic sites, by the time our hunger caught up with us each day we seemed to be stuck on choosing from among one identical tourist trap cafe to the next. Our stomachs wouldn’t allow us to walk an extra hour to find that perfect spot where only locals frequent. So we’d plop down on the street corner and enjoy the people watching while being served mediocre lunch that no one else seemed to be eating.

On day three, things changed. Feeling a bit tired, rather ravenous, and somewhat frustrated that I had not consumed my body weight in oozing french cheeses, rich coq o vin, or perfectly baked baguette, we stumbled upon a tiny gem in Saint Germain. I had just been complaining to my husband about this conundrum I felt we were in by staying in one of the most well know food capitals and not having eaten one tasty meal. I remember exclaiming, “All I want is something fresh at this point. Just a fresh crunchy salad with lots of vegetables. That can’t be too much to ask, right?” And then we saw it. A small chalk board sign hung against the wall of a tiny cafe. Really it looked more like a closet-sized convenience store with a wall of refrigerated drink cases against one side and two tiny plastic tables out front. But there it was in black and white: The day’s special, “The Crave Salad,” containing fresh grilled prawns, haricot verts, an olive mix, and more, all atop a bed of the crunchiest of lettuces. I was sold. No more walking. We had made our decision and I would soon sit down to the best salad I have ever eaten.

The owner came out to greet us, selling us his dish and assuring me that I would not regret my choice. Authentically friendly and good-humored, I felt compelled to trust him. We walked inside to choose a drink from the case. Gabe selected a fruit beer recommended by the owner, and I chose a light ale. We returned to our seats outside and let our bodies relax as we waited on our food. It all felt right. The street was quiet, the light was soft, and we had a moment of peace.

The King of all Salads arrived on a large white platter. This was no mere side dish. Atop a bed of fresh lettuces lightly dressed in a lemony vinaigrette, sat a long skewer of freshly grilled prawns, with their gorgeous bright orange heads still on. Surrounding the succulent meat were various piles of goodies to pick through, mix in, or eat alone: deliciously crisp and lightly salted haricot verts, the tangiest of fetas, a mound of mixed olives, cucumbers and tzatziki. Fantastic combinations.

I haven’t even mentioned the tartine that Gabe ordered – A generous slab of foie gras atop a slice of baguette, perfectly toasted and melt-in-your-mouth delicious. However, for me, it just couldn’t match the perfectly prepared salad that came into my life at just the right time, to reenergize me and renew my passion for this city. From that point on, the salad was referred to as Mary’s Crave Salad.

Mary’s Crave Salad*
Serves 4-6

*This is my interpretation of that notorious salad. I am recreating it here according to what I do remember as well as whatever other yummy bites suit my fancy… it is after all MY crave salad, and these are things I crave.

Lemony Vinaigrette

1/4 cup olive oil
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 tsp red wine vinegar
1/2 tsp honey
a pinch of salt and some fresh ground pepper

1 cup Greek whole milk yogurt
1 English cucumber, seeded, finely grated and drained (this is done by putting cucumber into a collandar, sprinkling with a little salt and letting it sit as the liquid drips out)
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill
Kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper

– Mixed lettuces chopped into bit sized pieces: I chose hardier greens like romaine and bib lettuce. Chop as much as needed for the number of desired servings (probably 1/2 head of each). If you are washing your greens, be sure that they are completely dry before you dress them, otherwise the vinaigrette will not coat the leaves.
– 1/2 lb haricot verts trimmed. (French for green bean, these are usually a bit longer, thinner and more tender)
– fetta, crumbled
– 8-16 oz mixed olives (you can usually find a good marinated olive mix in most delis)
– 12-16 fresh prawns (shells and heads on!),
– Some of your leftover roasted cauliflower would be good
– 1-2 carrots cut into matchsticks or shredded
– 1 cucumber diced

In a medium bowl, whisk together the yogurt, cucumber, garlic, lemon juice and dill. Season with salt and pepper. Chill this until ready to use.
Boil some water and lightly steam or simmer your beans until bright green and just tender. You want them to stay somewhat crisp. Move these to an ice bath. Once cold, drain them. Drizzle with a little olive oil and a sprinkle of salt. Chill until ready to use.
For the vinaigrette, mix all of the ingredients together and season to taste. Set aside.
For the prawns, slide 3 to 4 each onto a wooden skewer that has been soaked in water. Make sure the prawns are laying flat with the heads in the same direction. Drizzle each side with a little olive olive and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Heat grill. Grill prawns 2 minutes per side or until they turn orange and are just cooked through. Note that the skewers aren’t necessary but make flipping the prawns over easier and also look pretty on top of the salad.
Put the lettuce into a bowl and drizzle the vinaigrette over the top. Toss to coat. Dish the lettuce out onto a platter and begin arranging the accoutrements. On top of the bed of lettuce make little piles of each of the components – A little pile of olives on one side, a little pile of feta next to that, then a dollop of tzatziki, etc until everything is on the platter. Lay one skewer of prawns on top. Bon appétit!