January. A long, dark month here in the mid-Atlantic, peppered with freezing rain and snow squalls and the occasional polar vortex. I braise and stew and roast along with the rest of the northern hemisphere, steaming up my kitchen with warming wintery aromas and rib sticking cuisine. Sometimes, though, I’d like a little sunshine in my kitchen. I’d like a little freshness, perhaps some non-earth tone food.
Enter the salade composee. There’s much to love about salads composed of leftovers, fresh greens, snappy vegetables, and a puckery vinaigrette: they are rarely the same twice. They should come together in minutes, because (in my unassailable opinion) they ought to be cobbled together primarily from the little nerts stashed in containers in your fridge. They are easy to decomposee if you are 6 and are suspicious of sugar snap peas or harbor a distrust of beets. They are beautiful to the eye, because vegetables are the earth’s snarky answer to the sky throwing down a rainbow. (Take that, you blue-eyed ingenue! Gorgeous, and bursting with fiber and nutrition. When was the last time your fancy-pants arch helped someone poop? ) And they are delicious because of lemon vinaigrette. Ask anyone how they feel about lemon vinaigrette after a month or three of roasted squash and braised kale: they’ll feel great about lemon vinaigrette. Lemon vinaigrette promises that summer will be back some day. And lemon bars, too, but we’re all avoiding refined sugar these days, no?
We ate a lusty salade composee on a dreary evening last week. No one complained that they didn’t like anything at dinner because they served their non-whining selves from a heaping platter of food, and if you didn’t want your potato salad to touch your carrot salad, you were empowered to make that happen. Hypothetically.
There’s no real recipe for a salade composee, but there is a method to making a sublime one, rather than a merely good version. Mix up your vinaigrette. I use 3 parts olive oil to 2 parts lemon juice, about ½ teaspoon of dijon mustard to help emulsify everything, and season generously with salt and pepper. A pinch of sugar can smooth it out….literally, just a pinch….if it is too sharp to your palate, but I prefer a little pucker.
Assemble your elements:
Proteins: A leftover chicken breast, shredded. Cubed tofu. A forlorn garlic sausage, warmed slightly and diced. A piece of fish, leftover or quickly seared, cooled, and thinly sliced. Hard cooked eggs. Some rinsed and drained beans. A few handsfuls of toasted walnuts.
Carbs: For this salad, I tossed leftover cooked redskin potatoes with some of the vinaigrette and some scallions to make a potato salad. You could do the same with any grain, or just rummage around for a leftover grain salad that didn’t go over well with the family the first time. Refresh it with vinaigrette, and repurpose. Cooked pasta, canned beans, toasted stale bread.
Unadulterated veg: Greens, of course, plus things that are wilting in the crisper. Halved grape tomatoes, crisp cucumber slices, red cabbage shreds, coarsely chopped sugar snap peas. Consider cubing an avocado, an apple, or a pear.
Special veg: Dabs of whatever is left over. Ginger carrot salad. Roasted broccoli. Steamed green beans. Roasted red peppers. Sauteed kale. Pickled anything.
Finishing touches: Olives, cheeses (nice cheeses. This is not a moment for preshredded cheddar), sesame or sunflower seeds. Crumbled bacon. Fresh herbs. Diced dried apricots.
Pull together a nice assortment of toppings. Grab a big platter, and a big mixing bowl.
Start with greens: toss about 2 handsful of greens per diner with some, but not all, of the vinaigrette. Arrange on the platter. Then toss the toppings, one at a time, with a little more vinaigrette. The extra step of tossing the elements separately to ensure everything is dressed and seasoned will elevate your leftovers into a harmonious meal, likely tasting better they did the first time around.
Arrange everything artfully atop the greens. I’ve used the traditional Cobb salad presentation in these pictures, arranging everything in neat-ish rows, but reasonable people can disagree on the best way to present these salads. Don’t, though, toss everything in a big bowl. You need the presentation to really get the full sunshine effect.
At my house, this is dinner, as is. Pick up a crunchy loaf of bread and cut up a plate of fruit, and all of a sudden, you have leftovers fit for company.