This rustic salad was one of my favorite starters when I lived in Paris. It is sheer simplicity to make: just brown some lardons slowly in a bit of oil (I like olive oil) until they have rendered their fat and are lightly crisp. While the lardons are browning, rub a salad bowl with garlic, then add frisée that has been cut up into bite-sized pieces. Salt and pepper lightly (remembering that the lardons will be salty). When the lardons are nicely browned, add a tablespoon of white wine vinegar to the pan, swirl around to mix well, and then pour the still-hot mixture over the frisée in the salad bowl. Mix well and serve on individual plates, topped with the lardons and a generous grinding of black pepper.
Lardons are bits of cured pork belly cut into smallish cubes or strips. In France, you can buy them already cut up in the store. Elsewhere, get yourself some pancetta or ventreche (which is the French version of pancetta) and cut it into thick slices, then unroll each slice, cut off the fattiest parts and cut each strip into small cubes. You can also use slab bacon, but bacon imparts a smokey taste to the salad which is not characteristic of the original, so you may want to parboil the bacon lardons for a few minutes to remove some of the excess smoke flavor before you brown them.This is the simplest version of the dish—and the one you will find in the Larousse Gastronomique—is my personal favorite. (The rubbing of garlic is my personal touch.) But there are many other versions. Perhaps the most common variation is to add an egg—either poached or hard boiled and sliced in two, or even chopped up, on top of each serving. Some versions call for a bit of garlic or shallot to be sautéed along with the lardons. Other versions call for adding crème fraîche to the lardons instead of vinegar. And other versions call for dressing the frisée with vinaigrette and topping the salad with the lardons. And, finally, a few recipes I’ve seen call for topping with croutons or boiled potatoes as well as the lardons.
This is typically a winter salad but frisee can be found most of the year, so I like to make it as soon as the weather turns a bit cool. If you can’t find frisee, then substitute the white heart of chickory, which has a similar taste and texture. (Frisee is, in fact, a kind of chickory.)Salade frisée aux lardons is a wonderful entrée to a home-style meal, but in particular if you serve it with egg, it is satisfying enough as a light meal in and of itself.
Odd as it might seem, this salad reminds me strongly of another favorite cold weather salad: puntarelle, one of the signature dishes of Roman cuisine.