Salad a la Niçoise - Complex in Flavors, Yet Simple to Prepare
Spring has sprung, so we’re heading off to the French Riviera for a recipe to welcome the season of alfresco dining. A perfectly fresh fare to put us in mind of France—salad à la niçoise—is complex in flavors, yet simple to prepare. As prepared in Nice, this elegant composed salad of the Mediterranean is a full-meal deal, with ingredients ranging from fresh vegetables and herbs, to fish and hard-cooked eggs.
There are as many recipes for a niçoise salad as there are cooks. That is what’s so great about this salad, and, essentially, cooking at home in general: cook it like you like it; a meal made to order; have it your way. You can decide what ingredients you would like to use in this salad. I provide a base — a good starting point — and you can add or remove anything to suit your taste. The bottom line: this salad is fresh with the flavors of spring and summer.
There are four parts to prepare, none of which are difficult by any means. But the outline of ingredients can tend to be quite a long grocery list. That’s good, though. The variety is nice (no pun intended) and this will serve many hungry family members or guests. We’ll examine each part in detail and finish with another French treat that complements the salad deliciously.
A salad is not dressed for dinner without its salad dressing. For our French composed salad, a basic vinaigrette is the desired “cold sauce.” In the most basic form, a vinaigrette consists of oil and vinegar, and perhaps salt and pepper, to taste. Most vinaigrettes are made by whisking three parts oil (for instance, peanut oil or extra virgin olive oil) to one part vinegar (anything from wine vinegars to balsamic vinegar). The concentration of vinegar can be slightly higher for a more pronounced “bite,” so that is exactly what I’ve done in this instance.
For additional Mediterranean flavor, fresh herbs, freshly squeezed lemon juice, freshly minced garlic, sharply-spiced mustard (Dijon, of course!) and the requisite salt and cracked black pepper are added to this vinaigrette. Preparing this salad dressing fresh and from scratch is the only way to go. It is a simple task to combine the ingredients in a large bowl and break out the balloon whisk. Your salad will be dressed to the nines and your taste buds will be forever grateful.
The Vegetable Salad
Tomatoes, garlic, black olives and anchovies are integral ingredients in French Riviera cuisine, so they play a major role in this salad. To round out the array of vegetables, crisp lettuce and quick-cooked green beans and new potatoes add variety. Hard-cooked eggs, simply quartered or sliced, offer a unique garnish and complement the vegetables as this salad begins to resemble a smörgåsbord on a plate.
Of course, these flavors are traditional, but in no way should my list of ingredients limit your choices. This is the part of the salad to be creative. Add whatever vegetables you desire. Mesclun (a gourmet mix of young, wild and cultivated, multi-colored, multi-textured salad leaves, such as chicory, dandelion, arugula, chervil and purslane), any variety of lettuce greens (butterhead, crisphead, leaf lettuce or romaine), celery sticks (with leaves attached), colorful slices of sweet bell peppers, and artichoke hearts are all popular ideas for ingredients to add to a niçoise salad. You choose — it’s your dinner!
The Tuna Salad
This part is probably what distinguishes the niçoise salad the most from other composed salads. A simple tuna salad is simply another component to a plate full of fresh-vegetable goodness. There is nothing fancy about it. As a matter of fact, the tuna in this simple salad is usually from a can. Yes, you can purchase a tuna steak and grill it to perfection, flake it with a fork, and delicately toss with chopped red onion, capers (tiny, hand-harvested, sun-dried, pickled flower buds of the shrubby “caper bush,” native to the Mediterranean), and a splash of vinaigrette for a chef’s touch of five-star flawlessness. But that’s up to you. For this salad, I keep it simple. Open a can.
Even Julia Child, in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol. 1, suggests using “canned tuna chunks” for her version of Salade Niçoise (the “Mediterranean Combination Salad”). The idea is to offer a variety of tastes on one plate, but to do so without spending all day in the kitchen. Believe me, the added red onion, capers and homemade vinaigrette will more than make up for a few bites of canned tuna!
And if you hadn’t noticed, I brushed past the fact that anchovies play a rather major role when it comes to cooking in the South of France. If you choose to include anchovies in your version of this salad, these tiny, filleted, salt-cured, Mediterranean fish are going to come from an oil-packed can, too. Unlike the other salad ingredients that are “fresh from the land,” the fish in this salad, ironically, are not “fresh from the sea.” But that rather insignificant fact in no way diminishes the fresh flavors that this salad presents to hungry diners.
Ah, the bread! “Would you like croutons on your salad?” When responding “Yes,” one can reasonably expect to see a scattering of small, seasoned and browned bread cubes over the top of their salad. The result may come as a surprise to the same diner who responds “Oui,” when dining in France. While a crouton — a small, plain or seasoned, and sautéed or toasted piece of bread — can come in many shapes and sizes, a thinly sliced French baguette is often the source for delicious, seasoned “croutons” accompanying a composed salad à la niçoise.
Croutons are easy to make at home and this preparation is highly recommended. Simply cut a crispy, light-textured baguette (found in most grocery bakery departments) into thin (1/4-inch), diagonal slices. Combine 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil, 3 tablespoons butter and 1 minced clove of garlic in a small saucepan. Heat on low for 2 minutes to melt butter. Using a pastry brush, lightly brush both sides of each slice of baguette with the olive oil/butter/garlic mixture, place bread slices on a large baking sheet and toast in a preheated 350° F oven for 5 to 10 minutes, until golden brown. Serve croutons freshly toasted — straight from the oven, if possible. One baguette should make about twenty croutons that you can’t stop eating. (But please save some for the salad.)
The French Pancake
With the salad complete it might be nice to consider a dessert that is also French-inspired. A simple, thin pancake — the crêpe — is a perfect sweet treat to enjoy after this delectable salad disappears. With the correct pan and minimal practice, these are easy to make at home, but I’d suggest picking up a package of pre-made crêpes at the grocery store (find in the refrigerated section). These are easily reheated and enhanced with fruit preserves, or fresh fruit, for a light dessert.
With only slight additional effort, you can impress guests with a daring dessert that will not soon be forgotten: crêpes suzette. Combine 1/4 cup butter and the juice and zest of one orange (or tangerine) in a frying pan (or chafing dish). Heat on low to melt butter. Add 1 tablespoon of curaçao (orange liqueur), if desired. Fold crêpes into quarters and place in the warmed orange-butter mixture, turning to coat and to warm both sides. For a dramatic presentation, ignite the mixture (flambé) to burn off the alcohol, and serve warmed crêpes suzette to everyone’s delight. Garnish with slices of fresh orange and graciously receive your standing ovation.
All of these components — the vinaigrette, the vegetable salad, the tuna salad and the croutons — come together in my version of Salade Niçoise (see recipe). Don’t be intimidated by the list of ingredients. The bark is much worse than the bite, so to speak. Most likely, you’ll find nearly half of the ingredients in your pantry already, and the rest won’t take more than a few minutes to find when browsing the selection of fresh produce at your local market. This salad is worth much more than the minimal effort it takes to prepare.
The artistic value alone is highly irresistible. Present the components of this salad on the largest platter and let everyone dig in and design their own plate. Or divide it equally among guests from the start. It is versatile in its variety and in its presentation; a dish perfectly suited for brunch, lunch or dinner. It’s the time of year to ditch the casserole dishes and pots of stew and move on to the profusion of fresh tastes from the farmer’s garden. It’s time to enjoy a great salad once again … a salad with a French flair!
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup white wine vinegar
Juice from 1/2 lemon
3 tablespoons chopped fresh chives
3 leaves fresh basil, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
8 small new potatoes
1 cup fresh green beans
1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil (to toss with vegetables)
8 leaves Belgian endive lettuce
4 Roma tomatoes, quartered (or 1 cup cherry tomatoes)
1 cup black olives (and/or niçoise olives)
3 hard-boiled eggs, quartered
12 flat anchovies (optional)
1 can (about 10 ounces) white meat tuna, drained
3 tablespoons finely chopped red onion
1 to 2 teaspoons capers
Freshly ground black pepper
Croutons (see article for recipe)
In a large bowl, whisk together all of the ingredients for the vinaigrette; reserve. In a saucepan, boil new potatoes in water to cover until tender when pierced with a fork, about 15 minutes. Drain away water, allow potatoes to cool slightly and toss with 1 tablespoon olive oil; reserve. In a saucepan, boil green beans in water to cover until slightly tender, yet crisp, about 5 minutes. Drain away cooking water and place green beans in a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking and to preserve the vibrant green color. Drain away water and toss green beans with 1 tablespoon olive oil; reserve. For the tuna salad, combine in a bowl, tuna, red onion, capers and 2 tablespoons of the reserved vinaigrette. Stir well; reserve.
Arrange Belgian endive around the edge of a large platter. Fill in the platter with tomatoes, olives, eggs and the reserved potatoes and green beans. Place the reserved tuna salad in the center. Lay the anchovies over the salad or serve on the side. Pour some of the reserved vinaigrette over the vegetables and serve the rest on the side with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Serve salad with freshly toasted croutons. Bon appétit!
By Carol Ritchie
Carol Ritchie is the host of “Cookin’ with Carol.” She has taught cooking classes in the Dallas-Fort Worth area for 25 years.