- A different approach to the classic salade niçoise calls for piling the ingredients individually onto a platter so guests can compose their own perfect version
- Shallots and garlic star in this bold vinaigrette
- Green beans cool in ice water
- Anchovy fillets packed in oil add a burst of flavour
Kara Wille turns over a new leaf with this amazing summer dish
Growing up, salad was always something of an afterthought at our family table. In European fashion, we always ate our leafy greens after the main course, essentially cleaning both our plates and our palates with simply dressed lettuce leaves.
It wasn’t until later that I began to appreciate the salad as a main course in itself, by which I don’t mean indifferently grilled chicken dumped over a nondescript Caesar salad. I’m talking about your everything-but-the-kitchen-sink salad, a thoughtful grouping of your favourite fresh ingredients, bound together with a suitable dressing. The best example, and surely the best condiment for a hazy summer Sunday afternoon, is the grandpere of composed salads, the incomparable niçoise.
There are a bewildering number of recipes for this classic dish from Nice, the French Mediterranean city not far from the Italian border. Each source will tell you with great authority of the necessary elements of a salade niçoise, and go on to argue whether tuna, or boiled potatoes or lettuce have any place in the dish. As gastronomic borders shrink in this fusion-cuisine filled world, it’s likely that true salade niçoise no longer exists and it’s probably wise to leave the discussions over artichoke hearts and boiled eggs to the purists.
For now, let us accept that we are not making an authentic niçoise dish. Instead, we will give ourselves permission to create a simple meal that celebrates summer and evokes the heat and light of the Cote d’Azur. As British food writer Nigel Slater so delightfully noted, your salad “should have the salty robustness of the French coast. It should shout the loud flavours of the area, the sort of thing you tuck into with the sun in the your eyes and salt on your lips.”
Salade Niçoise with Basil Vinaigrette for 8
(adapted from A Platter of Figs and Other Recipes, David Tanis, Artisan Books)
As Tanis notes, everything for this salad can be made well ahead of time and kept at cool room temperature, which makes it ideal for a casual summer dinner party. Although I prefer to arrange all the ingredients together in a traditional fashion, Tanis calls this recipe a “deconstructed” salade niçoise, suggesting the ingredients be piled on their own individual platters, “the better to show off their individual glories. They’ll reconnect on each diner’s plate.” Either way, it’s delicious.
2 shallots, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, smashed to a paste with a little salt
3-4 Tbsp red wine vinegar (45 to 60 mL)
salt and pepper
a small handful basil leaves
11/2 cups olive oil (375 mL)
Combine chopped shallots and garlic paste with red wine vinegar in a bowl, adding a little salt and pepper. Crush/bruise basil leaves and add them to the mix, then let it all steep for 10 to 15 minutes.
Whisk olive oil into the vinegar mixture. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Let stand for 30 minutes and then remove the basil leaves. Use the vinaigrette within a few hours.
2 lbs small green beans, topped and tailed (1,000 g)
4 lbs tiny new potatoes (2,000 g)
4 lbs ripe tomatoes of different colours (2,000 g)
4 lbs tuna steaks, 2 inches thick (2,000 g)
salt and pepper
2 tsp crushed fennel seeds (10 mL)
6 hard-boiled eggs, cooled and peeled
12 anchovy fillets
1 cup whole, good black olives (preferably with pits and
stored in oil, not brine) (250 mL)
Boil the green beans in salted water for 5 minutes until just tender. Drain and spread beans on a kitchen towel to cool.
Boil the new potatoes in salted water for 12 to 15 minutes, until tender. Drain pot, return to heat for 30 seconds or so, tossing potatoes slightly in pot to dry. Remove from heat, let them cook and then cut into halves.
Cut tomatoes in wedges, season lightly with salt and pepper and set aside.
Season tuna with salt, pepper and crushed fennel seeds. Drizzle with a little olive oil. Grill over coals, or sear in a hot cast-iron pan, for about 3 minutes per side, keeping the tuna on the rare side. Set the tuna aside to cool. Or, if you prefer, you can cook the fish just before serving so it’s still warm.
To serve the salad, cut the tuna steaks into thick diagonal slices or break into chunks. Dress the tuna, beans, potatoes, and tomatoes with a little vinaigrette. Cut the eggs in half and drape an anchovy fillet over each one. Arrange the ingredients in the style of your choice (on separate platters as per David Tanis, or artfully together) and scatter olives and basil leaves over top. Serve with extra vinaigrette on the side and good baguettes.
Can’t eat it all? No worries! Stuff the remainders into a leftover baguette, drizzle with more vinaigrette and enjoy as pan bagnat for lunch the next day.