"we all know how first impressions linger the longest." Robert Carrier
I'm not particularly uninspired today, but I'm in a clearing out, ticking things on lists, mood, so I'm tackling Volume 4 of The Robert Carrier Cookery Course, and the first recipe in his first lesson 'First course salads and vegetables'. Because it's been sitting on my desk for ages. I'll come to the recipe shortly.
But first impressions. Why first impressions? Well he begins the section with a little lesson on the importance of first course salads and appetisers. Before I come to the actual list, cast your eye on to the cover of this book and the photograph of the youngish, debonair Robert Carrier in an amazingly awful jacket. Well I'm sure he thought he looked debonair. I doubt he thought the jacket was awful, and maybe it wasn't for a particular milieu at a particular time. And what about the dessert he is looking so smug about? I assume it's something from the last chapter in this book - Moulded desserts. Anyway, one is tempted to say would you cook something devised by this man? Which just goes to prove that you shouldn't just go on first impressions, because I would - even though I think this photograph is incredibly pretentious and also dated. This is a scan of my actual book by the way, which explains its somewhat grubby appearance.
Back to his list of things to bear in mind with respect to first course salads. This is it:
An appetiser salad or vegetable dish is designed to stimulate the appetite without satisfying it.
It must be attractive to the eye as well as the palate - this is the first impression your guests will get of the meal you have prepared for them, and we all know how first impressions linger the longest.
Make a point of using the finest, fruitiest olive oil, a mellow wine vinegar, freshly ground black peppercorns and a good, coarse salt when you come to dress a salad, prepare a mayonnaise or simmer vegetables for a cold antipasto or a dish à la Grècque
Finally, remember that just as a salad ought to be crisp, so cooked vegetables must never be taken beyond the stage where textures break down to a uniform, lifeless mush. They should be neither raw, nor overcooked, but al dente - the stage at which texture and, as a result, flavour are at their peak.
All good stuff and cookbook authors are still saying the same things. But the first two points are particularly worth thinking about. We do, after all, tend to eat too much don't we, and I am probably as guilty as anyone in having too much for a first course. I will try to restrain myself in future!
"Attractive to the eye as well as the palate" I have to say this is not my forte but I do recognise that it's important. If the food on your plate either looks a mess, or just blah then you are not tempted to eat on are you? These days of course we are inundated with glossy and super styled photos of the food we are attempting to cook which is a bit of a mixed blessing. After all you are unlikely to compete with the top food photographers and stylists are you?
And interestingly this book has no photographs and therefore you can do whatever you like in terms of presentation. So what did he choose as his first recipe? Well in this book it is simply called Belgian appetiser salad - and I went on an internet search. It's a bean, bacon and potato salad, and there were plenty of them. Indeed I may well have made one myself. It's sort of an obvious combination isn't it? But why Belgian? Well as I continued my search I eventually found that this is actually a dish called Salade Liègoise - or occasionally Potée Liègoise.
Liège - the town - is in Belgium - on the Belgian/Dutch/German border, but I have to confess it's a town that I tend to think is in France. So I'm obviously geographically challenged too. I'm not quite sure why this particular salad is associated with the town - I have not been able to find an origin story. So I'm assuming that the potatoes and the beans are grown locally and perhaps are particularly good. Interestingly it seems to be most commonly served as a main course, sometimes with the addition of eggs - generally hard-boiled, but occasionally poached, rather than as an appetiser as Robert Carrier suggests. Indeed it makes more sense perhaps as a main course - or as a side to a main course. And it should be served warm so the Belgians seem to regard it as a winter dish.
The video below is French, but really it doesn't matter as there aren't really any words, and it's very short. The bacon is not sliced into strips as per Robert Carrier, but, most likely, bought in the supermarket - you can buy packets of these little bits of bacon which they call lardons there because they go into so many things. Mind you I think I would prefer larger pieces of bacon.
Some people peel the potatoes, some don't - Robert Carrier doesn't, but he does slice his when they are cooked rather than leaving them in large chunks. The dressing for virtually all of them, applied when hot seems to be just vinegar, although some oil is used in the cooking of the onions that are also frequently included. Indeed the vinegar is sometimes cooked briefly with the onions. I think Carrier's comments about 'al dente' are particularly relevant for the beans. Some of them included mustard in the dressing - potentially a good idea.
Probably you have all made a very similar salad some time. But I bet you didn't know that you were making a Salade Liègoise. Belgium, like England tends to get somewhat ignored in the foodie stakes except when someone wants to have a moan about Brussels sprouts. The French are certainly rather scathing about Belgians, and particularly the Belgian accent. Mind you when a French lady in a shop in France once thought that I was Belgian because of my accent I was overwhelmingly flattered. Which is a bit ironic really.
I wonder what a modern version of this would be? What kind of twist would you make? Charred beans? A bit of chilli somewhere? Pancetta not bacon. A gourmet kind of potato like kipfler - and, yes, a poached egg, gently oozing into the salad.