The perfect French salad: or, ode to vinaigrette


The perfect salad in Scandinavia? No such a thing to be found. And why?

A) Despite the ‘nightless night’, Scandinavian vegetables are soggy and lousy.
B) One hundred years ago, we were still unfamiliar with most vegetables.
C) Unless you happen to find a really fancy restaurant, your salad dressing is of the market variety – either ‘mustard’, ‘mayonnaise-garlic’ or ‘low-fat French’. They all taste basically the same, with some variations on the color front.

And when you’re born in Scandinavia like I was, you don’t assume you’re missing out.

Once again, this story has a twist in the shape of France. My sister got married to a Frenchman from culinary Lyon. The young groom’s matronly mother was gorgeous in her youth and, back in those débutante days, fervently admired by a certain young chef named Paul Bocuse. Their love affair didn’t make it, but a love for gourmet food did.

Ever since, my sister’s mother-in-law has been quite the gourmet chef herself, known for her unctuous Bresse chicken in cream and her unparalleled fluffy salads.


What was her secret? I wanted to know. How does one get the humble lettuce to fluff out like that? So far, I had only seen Finland’s watery excuse of a lettuce lying perfectly diced and sliced but dead in a puddle of rinsing water and ‘low-fat French’ dressing. And, of course, the genetically-achieved crunchiness of America’s best iceberg lettuce drowning under ranch dressing.

Voilà,” she said, “panier à salade. You’ll need one of these.” A plastic container with a plastic basket inside and a lid with a spinning handle. I put the wet, washed lettuce inside, closed the lid, turned the handle violently and ta-dah – my lettuce was fluffy.


But when trying this at home and pouring the gluey substance that was ‘low-fat French’ salad dressing on my fluffy lettuce, it sank down instantly. Needless to say, despite its name, the salad dressing had no hint of French in it. I needed to know the secret to a decent dressing! The kind that my high-school sweetheart had once made for me and that I had tried to duplicate in vain ever since.

“Eet ees eezy,” he had told me. “All you need is oil, vinegar, mustard and salt. Voilà. A vinaigrette sans parallel.”  Well sorry mister French-lover-man, I cursed, but it wasn’t as simple as ‘zat’. My oil, mustard and vinegar just didn’t mix. The result was salad with mustard-tasting oil and vinegar. I had to move to Paris to learn that the secret is in the right dose, and not only that, but the right order of ingredients as well!

Once, while waiting for my turn to go to the ladies powder room in a Montmartre restaurant called Le jardin d’en face, I witnessed it. Vinaigrette in the making!

whisk some nice EVOO into a dab of honey mustard and a splash of white wine vinegar

Sunflower oil, not olive oil. White wine vinegar, Maille brand. Smooth Dijon mustard, again Maille brand. Salt. One tablespoon of vinegar, to which the chef added a pinch of salt. He stirred and waited for the salt to dissolve before adding a half tablespoon of mustard. Again the man stirred until the mixture was smooth. Then three tablespoons of oil. The chef took a small whisk, like those weird champagne-bubble whisks, and whipped the vinaigrette into a state of airy fluffiness.

From that day on, no ‘low-fat French’ for me! If you ask me over to dine, be prepared:  I’ll have a question for you. “Do you happen to have oil, vinegar and mustard?”

Image Credits:
1. Kui-Doraku, on Wikimedia
2. SliceOfChic, on Flickr
3., on Flickr
4. jeffreyw, on Fickr

About the Contributor

Milja Kaunisto

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  1. Janine Marsh Jul 2, 2012 at 11:09 PM - Reply

    I’m definitely trying this one – thanks for that, I’ve been experimenting with dressings and not yet found perfection – perhaps this is it?!

  2. Jean Brookes Jul 3, 2012 at 4:51 PM - Reply

    I don’t know what magic the salad spinner does, but it certainly works. I prepare the lettuce in advance and leave in the fresh. It comes out wonderfully ‘fluffy’ and fresh. This recipe for a vinaigrette is just what I have been looking for.

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