Tuesday, July 20, 2010

a summer picnic in versailles

When I studied abroad to France a few years ago, I was surprised at some of the similarities between my culture and the French culture. One thing we have in common: picnics.

I was fortunate to be in Paris for Bastille Day, France's celebration of the storming of the Bastille prison, and a symbol of the beginning of modern France. Celebrations are much like our Independence Day festivities: parades, flags, firecrackers, and picnics. My French host lived in the town of Versailles, home of the famous Palace and an important site during the tumultuous years of the Revolution. I was invited to a barbecue picnic at his home on Bastille Day.

French picnics seem to be similar to the ones I am accustomed to in the United States. Our host grilled chicken, steaks, and lamb. His wife made vibrant chilled salads and vegetable sides. But what makes French picnics unique is the bread, cheese, and wine. An improvement, I'd say.

Everyone's favorite dish seemed to be a simple vegetable salad dressed with a tangy vinaigrette. I was too shy to ask for the recipe, but our host's wife did tell us that what made the salad so delicious was the addition of French mustard into the vinaigrette.

On the metro ride back to my dorm in Paris, I scribbled down the bare bones of the dish in my little notebook I always carry with me. When I arrived back in the States, I attempted to recreate the dish myself. It wasn't quite as delicious as I remember, but it turned out very similar.

It is a great summer salad--as all the vegetables are in season during the summer months--served alongside a good piece of grilled meat or fish. The key, I think, is to use a high quality French mustard, and to let the dressing marinate with the vegetables for a couple hours.

Bon Appetit!

Versailles Salad

2 cucumbers, roughly chopped
3 tomatoes, cut in small wedges
1 bag frozen corn, defrosted -- may substitute fresh grilled corn if desired
French mustard (Dijon works fine)
White wine or Champagne vinegar
Extra virgin olive oil
salt and fresh ground pepper

Whisk together the mustard, vinegar and oil to make a thin dressing. I never measure the amounts; I always just guess and adjust the ingredients as necessary. To make a rough guess, I would suggest starting with 1/3 cup oil, 3 tablespoons vinegar, and 1 teaspoon mustard, but work with it until you get the desired taste. Season with salt and pepper.

Arrange the chopped vegetables on a platter in rows: 1 row with tomatoes, 1 row with corn, 1 row with cucumbers. It should resemble the French flag, but in different colors. If this is too fussy for you, you can simply toss the veggies together in a bowl.

Pour the dressing over the vegetables and refrigerate for a couple hours. Serve cold. I recommend using a piece of crusty bread to soak up the leftover dressing.

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