In France, where dining and conversation are considered art forms to be practiced jointly, there is a charming ritual which is often observed at the salad course. This dish is served, not at the beginning of the meal or as an accompaniment to the main course, but near the end of the meal.
The salad, generally simply greens but sometimes a salade mixe, is treated as a low-calorie pause before the heavier cheese course, which is the forerunner to the dessert, the fruits, and – eventually – the digestif. In a meal among extended family or friends, once the main course is finished, the hostess will quietly began clearing the serving dishes while the conversation continues.
Once this is done she will remove the dinner plate of the oldest female guest, deftly place a large bowl of salad before her, and murmur, “Madame, s'il vous-plait?” Without missing a beat of the conversation, Madame will smile her thanks, pick up the salad fork and spoon, and wait while the hostess pours her own special vinaigrette over the contents of the bowl. The hostess than replaces the rest of the dinner plates with salad plates while Madame tosses the salad.
This is done slowly, leisurely, lifting the greens at the very bottom of the bowl to the top over and over again until every leaf glistens with the oil-and-vinegar sauce. Madame then puts the bowl in the center of the table; the hostess gives her a salad plate and suggests, “Servez-vous, Madame”, and the meal continues.
This little ceremony is a mark of respect to the culinary abilities of the older woman. The hostess is suggesting that, while she has presented a bowl of crisp, luscious greens dressed with her own expertly-blended sauce, only Madame (often her mother-in-law) has the skill and experience to toss the salad to perfection.
The problem with this method, however, is that it requires much more dressing than most of us want to put on a salad. Regardless of a desire to reduce calories or simply a “waste not, want not” frame of mind, dumping a quantity of salad dressing on top of a bowl of greens uses much more dressing than is necessary. This can be avoided by reversing the order in filling the salad bowl.
To toss a salad with the minimum of oil-heavy vinaigrette, start with a tablespoonful or so of dressing in the bottom of an empty bowl, add roughly one-fourth to one-third of the greens and toss well. Add a bit more vinaigrette, a bit more greens, and toss again. Continue until the desired amount of salad is prepared. Needless to say, don't ask your mother-in-law to perform this task at the table.