My favorites are meal salads. When we were lucky enough to be taken out to a restaurant for dinner when I was a kid, I was thrilled to order the chef’s salad, the classic, protein-packed one often said to have been popularized in the 1940s by Louis Diat, the chef of the Ritz-Carlton in New York. I could not believe that you got that huge bowl all to yourself, with its artfully arranged mounds of julienne ham and turkey and Swiss cheese and wedged hard-boiled eggs and lettuces and tomatoes. I was even more excited to tailor it with a choice of dressings — blue cheese, ranch, French, Russian, Italian, creamy Italian. I salivate just writing that sentence.
I don’t question that the greatest meal salad of all time, the chef salad, was created by a chef. The combination of textures and flavors is consummately professional. Sometimes people mistake the salad bowl for a lawless place of disorganized and mismatched ingredients, chopped up and thrown in — dried cranberries on top of pumpkin seeds on top of soggy corn — which offends even me, who stakes no strong claim to her chef bona fides. A salad nonetheless requires a bit of cheffing, a little experienced attention paid to balance, texture and restraint. Not everything tastes better with bacon bits scattered on top.
Here is a recipe in the tradition of classic French salades composées, using both cooked and raw ingredients, that eats like a meal. Let’s call it a sous chef salad. It builds up from a classic niçoise — including good tuna in oil, juicy tomatoes and boldly garlicky vinaigrette. It uses cooked green beans and potatoes, but I also use Greek olives, red-globe radishes, Italian artichoke hearts and a few sprigs of fresh basil, and I have omitted the traditional anchovies. You arrange the ingredients on the bed of torn lettuce in such a way that is attractive, but, most important, one that ensures there’s a bite of each thing in each forkful.
It’s funny for a summer-salad recipe to start with boiling a big pot of water. But that’s where we begin. The things that need to be cooked have different cook times, and they can all be cooked together if you are confident in the kitchen — pulling out each item as it reaches doneness. If you’re shaky, start with the potatoes, follow with the beans and finish with the eggs. (The eggs sometimes crack when boiling, so I don’t like to risk the albumen spilling into the blanching water.) There’s a lot of opinion about what passes as the proper doneness for cooked vegetables. Some people like snap and crisp crunch, but I don’t. I like my vegetable cooking to adhere to what the French chefs call au point in meat cookery — translating literally as the point at which the meat starts to bleed juicy juices inside. I feel the same about beans, asparagus and baby zucchini: They’re done when they get juicy inside.
I drain each item on a rack, cooling it to room temperature without the shock of an ice bath. This requires a little accounting for distance, as it were, as the vegetables will continue cooking by residual heat. It’s like setting down a plane with enough tarmac ahead for a smooth landing.