For once, I had a solid idea in mind of the meal we would make before we arrived at the Dupont Farmer's Market last Sunday. I kept toying with the words "niçoise" and "salad," suggesting the outlandish twist of sausage in place of tuna (!), and "who has time for those fancy olives... and capers... and anchovies, anyway?" Mike insisted that this salad creation of mine, while perhaps loosely inspired by the original, was not in fact anything like a real Salade Niçoise.
In the end, we built a sound "niçoisienne" base of little gem lettuce (the diminutive bibb lettuce-wannabe of the Romaine fam), green beans, hard boiled eggs, potatoes, and a tangy, herby, slightly creamy vinaigrette. Atop we laid perfectly tender, juicy medallions of marinated, pan-seared pork tenderloin. And, though we don't by any means usually adhere to the schedule of a proper meal, the prospect of some bruschetta-type pre-salad course was too tempting to ignore. We "toasted" a few slices of French baguette (I use "toast" here because we may very well have used enough olive oil to technically be frying said slices) to act as spongy seats for our chopped tomatoes, garlic, and basil ("bruschetta" here loosely defined).
Now, les details. Below are two lists of food; the first containing those items we purchased at the market (not all, just those relevant to this meal), and the second, those items which we already owned and used at some point in the preparation of... LUNCH!
Potatoes - small, yellowy flesh, and with a reddish skin
Tomatoes - one pint of red-yellow mixed cherry tomatoes; two small black princes and two green zebras (at least I'm pretty sure that was the variety)
Green Beans - one pint of what seemed to be slightly more mature beans (or maybe some rogue variety, unfortunately I didn't get the name), which I didn't notice entirely until I got them home
French Baguette - from Bonaparte Breads, who thankfully make the trek to Dupont (and other markets) every week with the finest bread in all the land, pastries, and countless stacks of other buttery wonders. Seriously, for your own good, check these people out
Pork Tenderloin - About a half-pound strip of lean pork tenderloin, suggested by the nice man behind the table in lieu of my sausage idea (which would admittedly have overpowered the subtle flavors of the other ingredients)
Little Gem Lettuce - smooth, inoffensive, and buttery
Olive Oil, Garlic, Shallot, Mayonnaise, Kosher Salt, Pepper, Dried Thyme, Basil (fresh and dried), Dried Tarragon, Sherry Vinegar, Coarse Brown Mustard, Eggs
While the ingredients for the bruschetta and the salad were prepared alongside each other until the very end (we ate the bruschetta while waiting for the tenderloin to cook and rest), for clarity's sake, I'll explain the basic procedure followed for each as a whole on its own, rather than what I did in chronological order (I was all over the place, but it worked!). For the bruschetta, I waited to cut the bread (on a hard bias, so as to increase the slice surface area) until I was ready to put it in the pan. Though it probably wouldn't reduce it to crouton staleness, you never know what might happen (meteor, dance party, tenderloin crisis, and so on) and before you know it, the bread's been sitting out for two hours. Given the quality of this baguette, though, it would probably take a lot more than an extra hour sitting out to come anywhere close to staling it out.
Now, the tomatoes = super easy. Everyone's definition of "bite size" is different, but I cut about half the pint of cherry tomatoes and my four other heirlooms into such approximate size into a colander resting on a plate (or bowl, or in the sink--just something to catch the liquid at the tomatoes drain). If you like the extra juice, no need to salt your tomatoes, but for our taste, mixing about a teaspoon of kosher salt into the cut tomatoes did a great job of pulling out the excess liquid and concentrating the sweet, rich flavor.
Once the tomatoes had rested with the salt about a half an hour, I got rid of the liquid (down the sink or down the hatch, whatever you please), and added 1-2 finely minced cloves of garlic, another small pinch of salt (you might want to taste a tomato first to determine the need), a couple grinds of the pepper mill (again, to taste, it's up to you), about a tablespoon of olive oil (not too much, since it's really best served as a toasting agent for the bread) and let it all sit and get happy in a bowl. I waited until just before serving the add the basil chiffonade so it wouldn't darken.
And of course, the bread. Some people might prefer to skip the liberal application of olive oil which aids so well in the pan-toasting process, but not us, not this time, being Sunday lunch and all. All it takes is a simple nonstick pan atop medium-heat, and a patient little wait of maybe 5 minutes on each side (no real timing magic here, we just constantly lifted the slices to check the progress until we were satisfied with the rich golden brown color).
As the toasts became ready, we placed them on a plate, and atop them, the garlicky-basiled tomatoes. It would nearly have sufficed as an entire lunch in itself...
...If it weren't for the amazing pork tenderloin that had been marinating for over an hour in olive oil, garlic (two crushed cloves), salt, pepper, dried basil, tarragon, and thyme. The photo may be a bit difficult to make out, but beneath the looming specter of olive oil, on the counter are the dried herbs and tenderloin.
While the tenderloin marinated in the fridge, the rest of the salad preparation was quite simple (if not mildly sweltering with all the boiling and no AC, though it's amazing the discomfort your brain ignores when it's in the cooking zone... but maybe that's just me). In no particular order, we: boiled eggs; boiled (in salted water) and then quartered potatoes (for fear they might get waterlogged if we cut before boiling); steamed green beans; and washed and tore up the lettuce. It should be noted that to none of this did we add salt, except for about two teaspoons to the water in which we boiled the potatoes and green beans. Given the delicate and fresh flavors of the salad components, and the distinct zip of the dressing, we thought it best to let them shine as themselves while also acting as complimentary vehicles for the subtle, succulent tenderloin.
The tenderloin! Not much to it after the marinade, really. We fired up the cast iron skillet nice and hot to get a good sear on the outside, making sure to remove any big pieces of garlic or herbs beforehand, and let it cook on all four sides for maybe 5 minute each. As you can see in the photo, we settled on only cooking the meat to medium/medium-well (around 140 degrees F), and it was well worth the risk (so far...? anyone know how long trichinosis takes to show up?). Be sure to let the meat rest for about 5 minutes after removing it from the heat before cutting it, as well, as it gives the juices a chance to cool down and settle, magically keeping them from running out all over the place, and resulting in disappointingly dry meat.
For such a simple, lean piece of meat marinated in a really uncomplicated mixture (believe me, if I can make it up, it's not that difficult), the final product kind of knocked my socks off and was almost delicate enough to match the service tuna normally pays to a Salade Niçoise.
Next-to-last step was to mix up a vinaigrette containing sherry vinegar, a tiny amount of (real) mayonnaise for a little creaminess, coarse brown mustard, kosher salt, pepper, chopped basil, and olive oil. The trick, it seems, to a decent vinaigrette is saving the oil component to be whisked in, very slowly, until last. At that, if you've not added any real emulsifying components to the vinegar (mustard, egg yolk, etc.), making it essentially water, the oil droplets are going to quickly coalesce at the top. Additionally, though it may seem counterintuitive to add salt to such a strongly flavored component of the dish, believe me, it's one of those things that you'll miss if it's not there.
Finally, we placed all the ingredients together on our plates -- lettuce in the middle, green beans sprinkled on top, eggs and potatoes each lining one side, a drizzle of vinaigrette, and the tenderloin medallions down the middle.
Mike chose Orchard White, a dainty wheat beer from the Bruery folks that has only recently become available in the DC area, and supposedly with smacks of lavender, though we only got a pleasantly faint waft here and there. Mike adds: The firm carbonation and light character did a good job keeping our palettes fresh between the different components of the salad. It was delicate enough not to trample on the greens or the eggs, but still had enough herbal complexity to match with the pork (although probably not as well as something a bit of darker malt would have). The Bruery is one of the most interesting breweries to open in the last couple years. Most of their beers are delicious Belgian inspired brews (I am particularly fond of the Saison De Lente). The only knock on them is that their quality control still has room for improvement; I had a badly infected bottle of Black Orchard a few weeks back.
I hope you all enjoyed my first actual post. This is very much a process in progress, so please don't hesitate to let me know what you think can be added or improved for future posts.