When I wasn't devouring Hot Pockets while watching MTV after high school, my go-to meal was salad: Iceberg lettuce smothered in neon-orange French dressing, topped with Bacon, cheese, and store-bought croutons. Occasionally I threw a tomato or cucumber on top as a garnish.
Then in 1990, I spent a summer living with a family in France. Fresh fruits and veggies, more sweet and flavorful than I experienced at home, ruled the table. Beans from the garden were blanched and topped with a dollop of high-fat butter and herbs, while plums were quickly transformed into sweet galettes. It was easy to get used to the little culinary luxuries of everyday French eating.
When I returned home to Western New York at the end of summer, I quickly fell back into to my old eating habits. Pop Tarts and Diet Coke made for a quick sugar bomb of a breakfast. Dinner was an equally grim affair. It was either a big bowl of my preferred salad or a concoction of frozen vegetables, boiled until lifeless, hugging the plate alongside limp skinless, boneless chicken breasts.
At 16 I was self-conscious about my weight and considered these "healthy" dinners, which I insisted on preparing as an alternate to my mom's meals, atonement for the sin of dessert for breakfast. Unless, of course, I was too hungry to wait until dinnertime — that's when I resorted to Hot Pockets. I had no nutritional balance.
It was a French class project later that year that led me to discover Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. My mission, which I accomplished, was to prepare chocolate mousse for the class as part of an immersive dive into French culture. That recipe served as my gateway into the cookbook. I perused the pages with curiosity for the cuisine with which I'd had a brief dalliance. I was intrigued by the iconic recipes such as coq au vin and boeuf bourguignon, but their complexities and ingredient lists seemed overwhelming for someone who did not cook. It was the salad chapter that prompted me to actually cook.
In those pages, she taught me one of the best and most lasting lessons in convenient, whole foods cooking — how to pair a few pantry items with fresh produce to create a fast and healthy meal.
For me, salad was an afterthought. It was a quick mishmash of produce that lay forgotten for a week in the fridge drawer, revived just enough to be palatable. However, Child's vegetables took center stage and the composed salad recipes took me back to my summer abroad.
Salad Niçoise became my go-to favorite. The Mediterranean dish I tasted for the first-time months before was the perfect hearty yet healthy fare, overflowing with salty tuna, pungent olives, hard-boiled eggs, crisp green beans, and potatoes. It was easy enough for even a teen to prepare.
In those pages, she taught me one of the best and most lasting lessons in convenient, whole foods cooking — how to pair a few pantry items with fresh produce to create a fast and healthy meal. As a product of suburban comfort food schooled in middle-aisle shopping in giant mega marts, I embraced Child's formal guidance.
Get the recipe: How To Make Nicoise Salad
I was also surprised at the ease of homemade salad dressing. Replacing the store-bought bottle full of sugar, salt, and stabilizers was a cinch. A quick whisk of vinegar, lemon juice, mustard, oil, salt, and pepper produced a ridiculously tasty topping for which there was no going back to the slick, orange imitation.
Now as an adult, I always keep the main components to build the salad on hand. If I had to a name a signature dish, it would be Salad Niçoise. It's healthy, quick to compose, and amenable to substitutions. Sometimes leftover chicken replaces the tuna, or in winter I throw the ingredients over bowtie pasta instead of lettuce for a slightly more filling meal. Most importantly, I can pull it all together in less time than it takes for pizza delivery — or even a Hot Pocket.