Like a wayward lover, I can be accused of shifting allegiances toward salads. It’s just that there are so many great salads, and I have so much love in my heart. On this very blog alone, I’ve swooned for Caesar, gobbed praise on Cobb. But today I’ve got a new cruciferous crush — the noble Niçoise.
As a boy of 12 or so, I visited the French seaside development of La Grande Motte — not far from Nice. I remember a large shopping mall, strange pyramid-shaped buildings and boats. But most of all I remember a sandwich I had along the waterfront. It was called pan bagna, and it was like nothing I’d tasted before — fresh, salty, sour and briny of the sea. In incorporated both ingredients I’d never had before — anchovies, capers — with synergistic combinations I’d never imagined together — olives, egg and tuna. It was years later, after fruitless searches for pan bagna on menus at home, the I realized what I had had was essentially a Niçoise salad on a roll.
This is another classic salad whose sum is the soaring result of its parts. As with the Caesar, people get a little squirrely with Niçoise these days, I find. The most egregious offense, in my opinion, is replacing the canned or jarred tuna with seared fresh ahi. I’m a fan of ahi, but this is not the application for it. For the Niçoise to succeed, you need the salty, oily, flaky qualities of fully cooked tuna. I’ve seen people — including some well-known chefs who shall remain nameless — add everything from corn to chicken to white beans. The one point where I’m flexible is on the green beans, which in the video below I’ve replaced with peeled, blanched white asparagus.
The following recipe uses fresh farmer’s market vegetables (or those from our own garden), plus good quality tuna and anchovies. Using the best ingredients you can find makes a big difference. And DON’T PUT CORN IN IT!!! (I’m watching you.)
* * *
1 small head oak leaf lettuce (or other good quality lettuce)
1 large tomato, cut into 8-10 wedges
1 cup lightly steamed haricots vert (small green beans)
2 hard-boiled eggs, quartered
8 small potatoes (red, Dutch yellow or fingerling), boiled for 10 minutes and cut in half
6 oz. tuna in olive oil
1/4 cup niçoise or kalamata olives, preferably with pits
red wine vinegar
flaky sea salt & freshly ground pepper
Wash and dry the lettuce leaves. Arrange artfully on two plates. And then top with the ingredients, again arranging artfully, in order: cooked green beans, tomatoes, potatoes, eggs, tuna, olives and anchovies. Drizzle first with red wine vinegar, and with olive oil next. Finally, sprinkle with flaky sea salt and grind a little fresh pepper over the top. Serve with a baguette and some stinky French cheese, if you prefer.
Wine suggestion: a chilled dry, crisp rosé (thanks Ben!), or light white wine — perhaps sauvignon blanc or a French-style chardonnay (white Burgundy)
(*Note: for one of the world’s best sandwiches, the pan bagna, throw the above salad on a crusty roll smeared with a little mayonnaise.)