I first encountered Salade Niçoise in a most embarrassing way — by reading about it in a cheap romance novel the summer I turned 14.
The scene was typically evocative of a dime store read. A beautiful protagonist perched at a table under a striped umbrella on an immaculate beach in Cannes waiting for a murky character. The server brought her a bracingly cold glass of chablis and Salade Niçoise. At this point, the author abandoned the entire plot to wax poetically about the pungent olives, crisp green, tender French green beans and plump tomatoes for at least two pages.
I don’t know what happened to the character. I put down the book and picked up The French Chef by Julia Child. I made it sans anchovies and with green olives and cheap tuna packed in water as that’s all we had in the house. It was still good: lemony, fresh and elegant.
Twenty years later while living in London, I fled to Cannes for the weekend for the sole purpose of recreating that scene. As I sat under a striped umbrella, alone with a glass of wine waiting for my salad, I wondered whatever happened in that book? I’m sure she met some handsome chap and fell in love, but I’m curious how she got there.
In the heat of summer, or what passes for it in the Northwest, Salade Niçoise is one of my go-to dishes. Tomatoes, green beans and greens are fresh and plentiful and the rest of the dish comes from the fridge or pantry, namely eggs, olives, capers, anchovies and canned tuna.
However, the latter is a point of contention. There’s a raging debate about the use of fresh versus canned fish. Even Dorie Greenspan writes in Around My French Table that a French friend implored that she “not go all modern and use fresh tuna.” The second line of my notes on the dish from Le Cordon Bleu read: “Always canned tuna, packed in oil.” (I think it was The Gray Chef from Sharper, a culinary purist.)
Auguste Escoffier, the man who codified French cuisine described the dish as “equal quantities string beans, potato dice and quartered tomatoes. Decorate with capers, pitted olives and anchovy fillets. Season with oil and vinegar.” Note the glaring lack of tuna, canned or otherwise, in the description. Another point of contention: Should the ingredients be cordoned off into ghettos, the green beans to one side, the potatoes to another? Escoffier generously allowed that the arrangement of vegetables were “subject to no rules, merely a matter of taste.” I mix it up.
When tuna is the star, don’t reach for Starkist. Splurge on a Mediterranean variety, or better yet, a sustainably caught albacore such as the brand I use here in Seattle from the fishing boat St. Jude. After years of making and eating Salade Niçoise in several countries, I’ve come down to this variation on Julia’s classic. Nothing wrecks this salad faster than bland, cold potatoes, so I prefer the classic approach to flavor them in their own right first as a potato salad (photo right). Escoffier didn’t mention lettuce, either. I’m partial to a simple butter lettuce or a fresh arugula. The latter has some bite which adds depth to the salad. I’m sure that’s going to get me into trouble with the purists.
- ½ cup olive oil
- 2 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon mustard
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme
- Coarse salt, ground black pepper
- 1 lb. Yukon gold or new potatoes, quartered
- 2 tablespoons dry white wine
- 2 tablespoons chicken or vegetable stock
- 2 tablespoons chopped parsley
- 1 tablespoon minced shallot salad
- 1 cup, about 6 ounces, cooked green beans
- 1 cup halved cherry tomatoes
- 4 ounces butter lettuce, arugula or other greens
- ½ cup pitted black olives, such as kalamata or Niçoise
- 3 or 4 hard-boiled eggs, roughly chopped or quartered
- 12 anchovy fillets
- 7 oz. can tuna, packed in olive oil
- Prepare the vinaigrette:
- In a small bowl or jar, mix the lemon juice, olive oil, thyme, two pinches of salt, coarse ground pepper and shake or whisk together until emulsified. Set aside until needed.
- Prepare the potato salad:
- Steam or boil the potatoes just until tender. Cut into bite-sized pieces while still warm and toss gently with the white wine and stock. After a few minutes, toss again.Toss half the vinaigrette with the potatoes, chopped parsley and shallots.
- Finish the salad:
- Arrange the cooked green beans, tomatoes, lettuce, hard-boiled eggs and olives in a bowl. Toss with the vinaigrette. Arrange the elements onto four plates, top each with the anchovies and tuna.
French Tip: To keep the green beans crisp and retain bright color, boil briefly just until tender, then plunge into an ice bath.
Other recipes I like:
Simply Recipes (classic version)
Last Night’s Dinner (from leftovers)
Just Bento (with an Asian twist)
Feeding Maybelle (vegan)
Updated July 5, 2016