Friday, June 4, 2010

Salade Nicoise

Way back in 9th grade French class, Ms. Gold introduced me to salade Nicoise. She was one of those teachers who inspires students and encouraged us to appreciate France and French culture in addition to teaching us grammar. We listened to Plastic Bertrand in class ( I do hope some of mes amis are reading!), went to see French films and ate in French restaurants in New York. She was young, hip and quirky and we loved it all.

Each year with Ms. Gold and then, later, with Madame DeMuth, Randi Cohen and I baked a traditional Buche de Noel for the class holiday party. Randi's mother always let us bake the Buche at their house, and as best as I can remember, was also nice enough to clean up after us. Despite this largesse, and as much fun as I remember having, I suspect the complicated and labor intensive recipe which required many pans, pots and a candy thermometer, is why I don't bake much now. I still have the recipe, a faded blue "ditto" with creases from where I had it folded into eight for many years, just in case.

But the salade Nicoise stuck. As soon as it gets warm in DC and the farmstands start carrying green beans and new potatoes, I begin to crave this perfect salad as a light meal. Recently, the stars aligned: it was warm and I was able to buy some fresh potatoes and beans.

This is, as is often the case with me, not really a recipe. I'm not a traditionalist and I love to improvise a little so I'll just give you some guidelines.

A bed of butter, Boston or leaf lettuce

A few handfuls green beans, I particularly like thinner ones or haricots verts, lightly steamed or blanched and then plunged into ice cold water

A few new red or fingerling potatoes per person, can also use baby Yukon golds, cut in half or quarters if large and boiled for about 10 minutes until fork-tender

grape or cherry tomatoes, or cut up tomatoes

tuna in oil - use a great quality brand in olive oil. For the salad in the picture, I used a 10 oz. jar of Flott.

hard boiled egg (I like to try to leave the centers just a little under hard-cooked) - 1 per person - cut in half


thinly sliced red onion

capers for a garnish - well rinsed, salt-packed are best

anchovies - curl one on a few of the egg halves

vinaigrette - recipe below

This photo shows our salad before I dressed it, as the second after I drizzled on the vinaigrette, everyone pounced! You'll notice, however, that there are neither anchovies nor olives, both traditional components of a salade Nicoise. As whole anchovies are not a favorite in our house, I sometimes add a little anchovy paste to the vinaigrette in lieu of curling the fillets atop the eggs, although this time I did neither. As I'm the only olive eater, I add those to my plate alone. The cucumbers are a non traditional addition - I had a seedless cucumber in the salad bin I felt like using up and thought it would add some crunch.

Here is the piece de resistance (wish I could figure out how to add in the accents!)...I used a jar of Flott tuna from Sicily on this salad. I was raised in a "tuna in water" house and have bought only that for much of my adult life. For a mayo tuna salad, that's still what I buy. But for salade Nicoise, tuna in oil is preferred. If you buy a really great brand like Flott (or Ortiz "conserva" as I've learned from a food52-er), the tuna is packed in high quality olive oil and just adds to the flavor of the dish. You can drain it just a little bit before serving and you can cut back a little on the oil in the dressing or just not drizzle the dressing on the tuna. If you buy a great quality tuna in oil, the oil itself is a great quality olive oil.

If you prefer, this is also terrific with some thinly sliced, lightly seared fresh tuna. No matter which tuna you use, serve with a crisp white wine and some good French bread.

Basic Vinaigrette for Salade Nicoise

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon wine vinegar
1/4 cup good quality extra virgin olive oil
pinch salt
few grinds pepper

1. In a small bowl, whisk together the mustard and vinegar.

2. Slowly pour in the olive oil with one hand while whisking with the other.

3. Add salt and pepper to taste.

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