To recover from the holiday overload: Lyonnaise salad and bubbles

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It’s the season of excess, which makes sense when you realize that the December holidays are appropriations of old winter solstice festivals. They were unleashed against the death of the light and then celebrated the lengthening of the days. More directly, the timing of our midwinter celebrations, including Christmas and New Years Day, can be attributed to the Roman holiday honoring the god Saturn – the Saturnalia.

Beginning on December 17 and lasting for seven days, Saturnalia was a time when masters and slaves had the same status and could dress the same. In some cases, at tables laden with an endless array of rich dishes and bottomless jugs of wine, masters even served their slaves. The goal, interestingly, was to put everyone on a social level, but only temporarily.

All civic activities have been suspended. Schools, courthouses and businesses (with the supposed exception of food suppliers and wine merchants) have been closed. The peasants, as well as the nobles, were included in the celebrations. The giant banquet organized in the Forum was open to everyone. A lot of dancing, in addition to feasting and drinking, took place. Many goats were sacrificed. Gifts have been exchanged. And crowds of revelers thronged the streets shouting: “Bona Saturnalia!” the pagan precursor of “Merry Christmas”. Above it all presided over a false king known as the “Lord of Disorder”.

Caligula extended official Saturnalia observances to five days, which sounds like a premonitory embrace of Oscar Wilde’s statement centuries later that “Nothing succeeds like excess.”

Modern celebrations are quite moderate compared to the weeks of debauchery enjoyed by the ancient Romans. While our lavish spending on expensive gifts certainly eclipses that of the ancients, especially when you consider high-tech gadgets and even luxury automobiles – if you are to believe the seasonal TV commercials from Lincoln, Mercedes-Benz and their ilk. The Saturnalia gifts looked more like wax candles, which were obviously useful during the long, dark winter days.

That said, we really do our best to stay up to date in the food and beverage department. Slices of roast beef and gravy, mountains of mashed potatoes, buckets of green beans, piles of casseroles and basket after basket of buns, plus the ubiquitous Christmas cookies and assorted cakes and pies , all add up to weeks more calories consumed than usual. That doesn’t even count the eggnog and other gallons of wine and spirits drunk. Probably the only time more bourbon is served here is during Derby season.

No wonder fitness centers always see a peak in membership in January, and the most common New Year’s resolution is to lose a few pounds. But, the exit from all the festivities doesn’t have to be a time of cold turkey fasting and sweaty workouts. Perhaps a more measured approach, characterized by quality rather than quantity, would be more pleasant, if not realistic.

Honestly, the only New Years resolution I could ever keep was the year I swore to always have a bottle of Veuve Clicquot Champagne chilled in my fridge. It’s not as decadent as it sounds. Because of its carbonation, sparkling wine, unlike still wine, remains completely drinkable for several days after opening. The same principle holds those liter bottles of soda or sparkling tonic water for a while after you twist their caps. A flute of champagne every now and then is a nice reward after a long day and is nowhere near as high in calories as a shot of bourbon or a bottle of beer. I think I drank three bottles during the year.

Likewise, sparkling wine is too often overlooked as a dietary supplement. It does not need to be saved for a special occasion. Why not brighten up a light bite with a glass of champagne?

True, the salad qualifies as a light bite and can be a tasty and moderately filling dish (especially at lunchtime and with a piece of crispy baguette). For simple but delicious cuisine, it’s hard to improve upon traditional cuisine from the south of France, and for a satisfying and elegant salad from this region, I’m always drawn to the Lyonnaise salad.

The Lyonnaise salad is a must on the menu of the French restaurant Brasserie Provence. Instead of any type of lettuce, the green base used is curly, a slightly bitter and slightly peppery member of the chicory family.

Famous English cookbook author Elizabeth David, who introduced the British to French cuisine just as Julia Child would to Americans, once wrote: “The pig in all its forms plays a big part in Lyon cuisine. The pork appearing in this salad is smoked bacon lardons that are joined by crispy croutons mixed in a light Dijon mustard vinaigrette and topped with a poached egg. Simple ingredients, complex flavors and a high protein salad.

My favorite pairing with Lyonnaise salad, as you might have guessed, is a glass of champagne. Among the magic candles on the Brasserie Provence menu offered by the glass, I like the Nicolas Feuillatte Brut Réserve. It has light pear and apple notes that contrast nicely with the smoke and pepper of the salad, and it cuts through the rich texture of the egg.

You might like to follow this virtuous lunch with a cup of espresso (zero calories) instead of dessert, continuing to delight your palate while monitoring your waistline.

Happy New Year and bon appétit! •


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