I’ve always had a tendency to do things the hard way. I’m not a particularly fussy or methodical person but sometimes the easy way just doesn’t occur to me. There’s something in the wiring of my brain that makes things more complicated than they have to be. As a result, I’ve never been a big fan of simplicity–especially when it come to food. Especially when it comes to lunch.
Coming from a European cultural background where lunch is the biggest meal of the day, I have long held the habit of eating most of my calories by one o’clock in the afternoon. And we’re not talking sandwiches here, either. Lunch has got to be hot: pasta loaded with vegetables, chicken korma, a meaty lasagna. On weekdays what I eat for dinner can rarely be called a meal. Most people cook dinner when they come home from work. I make my lunch for the following day.
Mind you, I like doing things like this. I think it’s healthier for me to burn off most of my calories earlier in the day. On the rare occasion I have gone to bed with a full stomach, I’ve always woken up ravenous the next morning. Go figure.
But a couple of days ago I had an epiphany of sorts. Rather, I remembered another epiphany I had in Paris at this time last year. I was at home and it was lunch time. Poking through my unusually empty freezer, I came up with a lonely chicken breast as the only possible source of protein. To me, there is nothing less spectacular than white chicken meat. Even more so since my last, unnecassarily painful stint on Weight Watchers, where rubbery chicken breasts were a tri-weekly staple–at the very least.
I ended up grilling the chicken, tossing it with some fresh homemade mayonnaise, and ate it with a couple of slices of toasted ciabatta bread. I don’t think I would have thought of this little lunch had I not been in the middle of reading Amanda Hesser’s book Cooking for Mr. Latte, in which she has a little recipe for chicken salad. If it was good enough for a food writer at the New York Times, I figured it was good enough for me. It was a very simple meal, and incredibly satisfying.
My chicken salad brought to mind the last time I’d had such a simple lunch. It was last year, on my first full day in Paris. After spending a good part of the morning partaking in a cafe creme and flaky croissants at the corner cafe, my friend Cyril took me to the outdoor market in his arrondissement. I had been to outdoor markets before, in different European cities, but “market” and “Paris” are words that belong together, like “tea” and “biscuits”. I was amazed at the jumbles of tomatoes heaped on the sellers’ tables. The mounds of potatoes and green beans in the crates beside them. The sheer variety in fruits, nuts and fish. We ended up with some endives and juicy-looking red tomatoes, and saucisson, the dry, cured salami that can be found on plates of charcuterie in every French restaurant.
We stopped at the boulangerie for a baguette, and soon after, were feasting on fresh French bread smeared with chunks of oozing camembert cheese. Paired with a salad of tomatoes and endive drizzled with olive oil, it was the simplest meal I’d had in a long time. And the best. Perhaps it was because I was in Paris that the meal seemed so special. Maybe it was the quality of the food itself; I hadn’t tasted bread like that before or since. Whatever it was, that simple lunch tops my list of most memorable meals.
I remembered that day in Paris while I was eating my chicken salad sandwich, and was reminded that simple isn’t necessarily a cop out. Sometimes the simple things in life can actually be the best things.
1 chicken breast
2 tablespoons mayonnaise
2 scallions (green onion), chopped
squeeze lemon juice
several garlic chives, chopped
salt and pepper
Grill chicken breasts. Let cool 10 minutes and toss with mayonnaise.
Add scallions and lemon juice. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Garnish with chives and serve with slices of baguette.