Saturday, August 4, 2012

Salade Niçoise: A Mission to the French Riviera

With the heat of summer upon us, I'm taken back to my summer visits to France's south coast.  While it's a lovely region it can be quite hot in the summer and a cold but hearty Salade Niçoise is always welcome midday or as the sun sets into the glorious Mediterranean sea.  It is the specialty salad of the Côte d'Azur and named for the city of Nice.

Kevin shopping in Nice's Old Quarter
Some history buffs suggest choreographer George Balanchine was instrumental in its development while staying in Monte Carlo, while others credit the housewives of the Nice area. I'm doubtful of the Balanchine connection, otherwise we'd call it a "salade Balanchine" much as we have named the Cobb Salad after its inventor.

Julian in Monte Carlo
Salade Niçoise, made famous in the USA by Julia Child, has the salty robustness of the Mediterranean coast.  Like the colors of the region, a well made Salade Niçoise is characterized by the area's bold flavors; the sort of meal you enjoy sitting seaside in Nice, with a big sun hat and big, dark sunglasses, a cold glass of wine, a piece of crusty bread and the smell of sea air.

To be true to its origins there should be garlic in the dressing, although Julia doesn't include it. Heyraud, author of La Cuisine à Nice, wrote in 1903 that the true Salade Niçoise should contain quartered artichoke hearts, raw peppers and tomatoes, black olives and anchovy fillets. The dressing should be olive oil, vinegar, salt, pepper, mustard and chopped 'fines herbes'. You'll note the lack of lettuce, which Julia and many others include, and most alarming, no tuna, which seems to be a signature of this salad when made in America.


My Ingredients for Tonight's Salade Niçoise
Now you might think Julia "Americanized" this salad to please our palate, but in fact in my experience no matter where you go in Nice or the surrounding area, you'll get a different version of Salade Niçoise not just in each town, but in fact in each restaurant in the same town.  The same is true of Paris, where I had a wonderful Salade Niçoise that had some of the most delicious canned tuna I've ever had.  However, if you are trying to find that Niçoise you had on your last trip to the region, that you recall as the best you've ever had, give up.  No two Salade Niçoise seem to be the same! But don't despair; they are all good!

While Julia Child was in France she too came to love this dish saying "Of all main-course salads, the Niçoise is my all-time favorite, with its fresh butter-lettuce foundation; its carefully cooked, beautifully green green beans; its colorful contrast of halved hard-boiled eggs, ripe red tomatoes, and black olives; all fortified by chunks of tunafish and freshly opened anchovies."


A Single, Dinner-sized Portion of my Salade Niçoise
So below I provide you Julia Child's original recipe (from Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume One), but do change it to meet your own tastes.  Go big and add some garlic to the dressing, if you like.  Throw in some raw bell peppers, and chop some fresh basil or other good herbs from your garden to add to the dressing.  And if you do use the tuna as Julia suggests, consider a premium brand like American Tuna.  I purchase this at Whole Foods and one 6 ounce can is good for two dinner salads.  It is by far the best tasting canned tuna available and in a salad like this where it is simply chunked and served without other preparation, having a good quality tuna is very important.  I prefer to use just a small amount of Boston lettuce placing it on the bottom of the salad bowls and arranging the ingredients on top.  She calls for French Potato Salad, but I made up a dill dressing, which  I prefer.  So improvise to your tastes.  Do make sure you follow her advice and dress the lettuce, green beans and tomatoes separately before assembling. 

Ingredients  (For 6 to 8 people)
3 cups cold, blanched, green beans
3-4 quartered tomatoes
1 cup vinaigrette dressing
1 head Boston lettuce, separated, washed and dried
3 cups cold French potato salad
1 cup (2 six ounce cans, after draining) tuna chunks, drained
1/2 cup pitted black olives, preferably the dry Mediterranean type
2 or 3 hard-boiled eggs, cold, peeled and quartered
6 to 12 canned anchovy filets, drained
2 to 3 Tb minced, fresh green herbs

Just before serving, season the beans and tomatoes with several spoonfuls of vinaigrette.  Toss the lettuce leaves in a salad bowl with 1/4 cup vinaigrette, and place the leaves around the edge of the bowl.  Arrange the potatoes in the bottom of the bowl.  Decorate with the beans and tomatoes, interspering them with a design of tuna chunks, olives, eggs, and anchovies.  Pour the remaining dressing over the salad, sprinkle with herbs, and serve.

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