Several years ago, Lyonnais salads were quite the rage in New York’s French bistros. Then the fad faded and I forgot all about them. That I, until this past summer, when I had the happy opportunity to teach some classes in Lyons and reacquainted myself with this regional delight.
The classic recipe calls for frisee lettuce tossed with mustardy vinaigrette, then topped with lardons (chewy little chunks of bacon), croutons, and – ta da! – a poached egg. The poached egg not only makes the salad quite substantial, but – thanks to the luxurious way the yolk coats the greens once it has been broken – also acts as an extra sauce. (I’ve always been sucker for a salad topped with a poached egg. And bacon, of course.)
Still, I know that the prospect of poaching eggs is sometimes scary to the home cook. In truth, the standard method can be daunting even to a trained chef.
Here’s how I was taught to do it: Bring to a simmer a pot of water combined with a hefty amount of white vinegar. The vinegar is supposed to help the whites to set up. Break the eggs into individual ramekins. Create a whirlpool in the water by frantically swirling a spoon along the pot’s circumference, then drop an egg into the dead center of the whirlpool. Aiming accurately is supposed to make all those loose strands of white wrap neatly around the egg. Repeat this routine with the remaining eggs, then let them simmer until they’re just done.
I rarely managed to place the egg in the center of the whirlpool, which meant that my poached eggs – with their messy strands of white – usually ended up looking like lopsided spiders. Why do those strands stray from the egg? Have you ever noticed that when you crack an egg, the egg white separates into two parts? There’s a thick, viscous part hugging the yolk and a thin, watery part along the edges. It’s the watery part that, when cooked, becomes straggly.
Recently, I’ve learned a simple way to solve that problem: lose the watery whites. Just place your raw egg in a fine mesh strainer, tip the strainer around (which helps to separate the thin part of the white from the thick part), then bang it hard several times against the edge of the bowl. The thinner part of the egg white will fall through the strainer. Discard it and your eggs are ready for poaching without fear of spider legs.
I simplified the recipe further by saying au revoir to the whirlpool and the vinegar. I always thought the vinegar made the whites taste – Duh! – like vinegar. Now all I do is bring a pot of water to a boil, turn it off, add the strained eggs, cover the pot, and let the eggs cook, off the heat, until they are just done. Behold the perfect little bulls-eyed ovals.
The rest of the salad is very straightforward – frisee or your choice of greens, a bacon-rich vinaigrette, croutons and – my custom touch – smoked salmon, which turns this delicious appetizer into a main dish. In the words of my favorite Francophile, Ms. Julia Child, “Bon appetit!”
Lyonnais-style Salad with Smoked Salmon
Start to finish: 40 minutes
2 cups of 1/2-inch bread cubes, cut from country-style bread
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
3 slices center cut bacon
2 tablespoons minced shallot
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
Salt and ground black pepper
8 cups ripped frisee lettuce, baby arugula or shredded Tuscan kale
4 large eggs
4 ounces smoked salmon, cut into 1-by-2-inch pieces
Heat the oven to 350 degrees.
In a large bowl, toss the bread cubes with 1 tablespoon of the oil. Spread the cubes in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet. Bake on the oven’s middle shelf for 6 to 8 minutes, or until light golden. Set aside to cool.
Meanwhile, in a small skillet over medium-low heat, cook the bacon until crisp. Transfer the bacon to paper towels to drain, then crumble it. Discard all but
2 teaspoons of the bacon fat from the pan and return the bacon to the pan along with the shallots. Cook over medium heat, scraping up the brown bits, until the shallots have softened, 3 to 4 minutes.
Remove the skillet from the heat and whisk in the vinegar and mustard. Season with salt and pepper. Add the remaining oil to the pan in a stream, whisking. Keep warm over low heat.
Fill a medium saucepan with 2 inches of water. Bring to a boil.
One at a time, break the eggs into a fine mesh strainer set over a bowl. Tilt the egg around in the strainer and bang the strainer a few times on top of the bowl to let all the loose egg white fall through the strainer. Transfer the drained eggs to individual ramekins or small bowls. Discard the loose whites from the large bowl.
When the water is boiling, remove the saucepan from the heat. Very gently slide the eggs into the water and cover the pan. Poach the eggs in the residual heat for 1 1/2 to 2 minutes, or until they have reached the desired degree of doneness. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the eggs to a shallow bowl.
In a large bowl toss the lettuce with the warm dressing, then divide among 4 serving plates. Top each portion with a quarter of the croutons, a quarter of the salmon and a poached egg.
• Makes 4 servings.