By Lucinda Hutson
Each bite of salade Lyonnaise celebrates the senses! Frilly curls of frisée keep their sharp, chicory-like bite even when tossed in a tangy shallot-and-Dijon vinaigrette while the yolk of a gently poached egg spreads like a cozy golden blanket atop the mound—a subtle comfort from the other intense flavors, yet melding them harmoniously. Salty, crispy strips of fried lardons (salt-cured pork fat, though bacon will do in a pinch) become the crowning jewels.
No wonder the French adore this salad—serving it with toasted croissants or brioche.
One chilly spring eve, I picked some garden greens to make a salad for my neighbor Nancy and myself. I longed for something warm and nostalgic like salade Lyonnaise, but we lacked some of the crucial ingredients and Nancy doesn’t eat lardons. She mentioned one of her grandmother’s favorite comfort foods (which my grandmother loved, too) was shirred eggs on toast: eggs baked in a ramekin with a dollop of cream, butter, grated cheese and perhaps a few savory garnishes and served on toast. So we decided that shirred eggs (called oeufs en cocotte in French) would become the topping for our Lyonnaise-like salad.
I dressed the spring greens in a snappy Dijon-anchovy vinaigrette. You’ll find that shirred eggs are well-suited when making this salad for a gathering because baking eggs in ramekins is easier than poaching them individually. Now let’s talk about some of my favorite salad fixin’s fresh from the spring garden.
MY "SALAD BAR"
A raised five-by-ten-foot bed made from stacked antique bricks and filled with rich, organic soil and compost serves as my “salad bar,” where I pick glorious spring greens, fragrant herbs and edible flowers for salads. It flourishes best in the spring before the heat arrives. Throughout the fall and early spring, I grow a variety of lettuces including butterheads, oak leaf and curly red-tipped Lolla Rossa. Lots of arugula (including the smaller-leafed variety Arugula rustica that has little yellow flowers that spill over the sides of the bed), baby spinach and a variety of Asian greens are also included. Exotic blood sorrel, with its pretty, small, deep-green leaves ribbed with bright-red veins and a mouth-puckering bite, add flavor and color to salads and the garden.
A few salad burnet plants, which thrive in the cooler spring weather, are found along the border—growing like a fountain with long, cascading stems sporting small, serrated leaves with an unmistakable cucumber essence. Lemon thyme, with its dainty variegated green-and-yellow leaves, is another salad favorite—citrusy and fresh. Plant this low-growing, mounding herb along the edges of the bed as part of the border, along with bunches of chives or society garlic, whose star-shaped lilac flowers make a great garnish. And don’t forget to add a marjoram plant or two along the border edging. Its tender sprigs bring sweet perfume to pungent garden greens. Purchase these herbs as nursery transplants.
Groupings of small Johnny-jump-ups or pansies, with painted faces in vivid hues of purple, yellow, magenta or pastels add color to the bed and to the salad as edible garnishes. Mounds of cooler-weather nasturtiums spill over the raised bed laden with brilliant sunset-colored blossoms that make gorgeous (and tasty!) edible garnishes. Their peppery and pungent miniature lily-pad-like leaves taste delicious mixed with other salad greens. Sprinkle sunny golden or orange petals from calendulas on salads, too.
Plant taller herbs like Italian parsley, dill and tarragon in the center of the bed. These are must-haves for tasty vinaigrettes and garnishes.
MAKING THE SALAD
Pick an assortment of spring salad greens of various hues and textures. Add a big handful of tender sprigs of the fragrant herbs mentioned above, and don’t forget salad burnet. Rinse and spin the greens, dry then chill while preparing the other ingredients.
PREPARING THE EGGS
Now for the fun part! Make shirred eggs simply, like our grandmothers did, or partially fill the bottom of buttered ramekins with whatever suits your fancy: crumbled bacon, a thin slice of prosciutto, smoked salmon or trout, a few spoonfuls of roasted veggies, sautéed asparagus, caramelized shallots or onions. Whether the salad is served as a first course or a main dish may determine whether one or two eggs per serving are used. Adjust ingredients and cooking times accordingly.
Preheat the oven to 350° and place a rack in the middle. Crack the egg(s) into the ramekins over the other ingredients without disturbing the yolks and season with salt, pepper and a pinch of cayenne. Top with a tablespoon of half-and-half or cream and a sprinkling of grated cheese, if you wish (I like Gruyère, shredded Parmesan or a bit of chèvre). Sprinkle with snippets of thyme, chives or parsley and a pinch of paprika, and bake until the egg whites are set and the yolks still runny—about 15 to 20 minutes. Check often, though, and rotate the ramekins as needed. Some may prefer to prepare a water bath instead, which prevents overcooking and a rubbery egg texture. Do this by setting the ramekins inside a larger casserole dish and adding just enough hot water to come halfway up the sides of the ramekins before baking.
PREPARING THE VINAIGRETTE
While the eggs are cooking, whip up this tangy vinaigrette. Use a good, fruity olive oil and high-quality white or Champagne vinegar. You can leave out the anchovies if you’re not a fan—just use a little less lemon juice.
2 cloves garlic
3 anchovies, mashed
3 T. white or Champagne vinegar
2 T. fresh lemon juice, and some of the zest
2 t. Dijon mustard
1 T. fresh lemon thyme, tarragon and/or marjoram, chopped
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
Pinch of cayenne
Scant ½ c. olive oil
Sliced red or green onions, to garnish
Crush the garlic and add to the anchovies. Add the remaining ingredients—whisking in the olive oil at the end to emulsify. Lightly toss the greens with the vinaigrette and mound on chilled salad plates. Sprinkle with chopped green onions or thin slices of red onion.
If the eggs are just out of the oven, let them set for a minute, then scoop them out of the ramekins and place atop each salad. Garnish with one or more kinds of edible flowers and fragrant, tender herb sprigs. Serve with crostini, toast points or croissants, or pile the ingredients between slices of toasted bread for a noteworthy sandwich. And, of course, shirred eggs taste delicious when eaten right out of the ramekin.