Approximate date of discovery- December 23rd, 2007. Town: Maussane les Alpilles, Les Baux, France. Restaurant: La Place.
It was on this night that I remember really tasting the magic of what and egg and pan-fried pork fat can do to the senses. I had ordered a classic French frisée salad, not really remembering what the exact components of this entailed. What it did entail ended up being the start to a love that I still cherish and clutch to today. That memorable evening at La Place was much marked by the thick-as-wool wall of cigarette smoke being perpetually reinforced at the table next to ours. Smokers were smoking to their utmost capacity in restaurants at this time because, as you know, the law restricting indoor fumer didn’t take in effect until Janurary 1st of ’08. So these horrendous last days before pas de fumer were worse than ever. Thankfully however, my frisée salad withstood its immaculate perfection; its components- A poached chicken’s egg probably collected that morning, perfect cubes of crispy and juicy lardons (fatback cut of pork also from where bacon hails), and chunks of toast and caramelized shallots cooked in the remaining, rendered pork fat. All of this was perched atop a bed of crisp frisée lettuce, or what my sister and I called ‘spiky lettuce’ as kids, then the whole plate was drizzled with the defining touch of acid from a simple, and oh so French, lemon vinaigrette.
Let us first start with the egg. The French are perhaps the most persnickety of all of the world’s egg preparers. A chef in training for instance may very easily have to cook up to a hundred omelets before his instructor withholds complete torment and scolding for a lazy and foolish job. Eggs, to the French, (and so to should be to the rest of the world) as a protein, are never to be tainted with by over-handling or by cooking over too high of heat. This particular poached egg was probably submerged in almost boiling water infused with a slight drip of white vinegar then left to cook for no more than 3-4 minutes. This allows the white to just set and the yolk to be an imminently bursting bubble of silky flavor. A hardened yolk would ruin the entire dish and simply render the meal unremarkable. A runny yolk is essential in binding with the vinaigrette in order to melt and emulsify the oil and vinegar so that a perfectly rounded coating on the lettuce and lardons is achieved.
Like your traditional breakfast of bacon and eggs, the lardons bring a salt to this dish that could not be compensated otherwise. Not to mention biting into these fatty wonders is like slipping off to a land where the words ‘treadmill’ and ‘dumbbell’ do not exist! Yeah, sure, the shallots and crispy bread chunks add an element of texture, but really the only reason why they’re there is just an excuse to have the utmost amount of pork fat embraced by the dish.
Perhaps what I love most about the frisée is its ability to be conducive to the ultimate ‘best bite.’ In our family when we want to try what another person has ordered at a restaurant we ask for a ‘best bite.’ This means the sharer has to include all elements of their dish into one single fork or spoonful so that the taster gets the sense for the entire preparation in just one bite. A best bite of frisée salad goes down like this: a sensational crunch of fresh, cool, crisp lettuce hits the tongue with the following fizz of oozing, crusty pork bites– which then, is politely interrupted by sweet shallots and creamy yolk-infused vinaigrette that denotes a pleasing poignancy, and seals the deal.
This entire memory hit me like a brick when I saw a bundle of beautiful, baby frisée at the market last week. I scooped it up knowing I had eggs, a leek, a luring hunk of New York’s Buoni Italia Guanciale (fatback cut cured like a pancetta) all in my fridge at home. I made my own version of this French classic and for the first time in my life, poached an egg. I was so delighted with the outcome and content, and with finally satisfying my urgent need to consume this meal, that I prepared it again the following night. Besides, whomever says you can have too much Guanciale is a madman and obviously not Italian, or French for that matter.