September 03, 2008

Salade Niçoise: Simple and Easy to Make This very colorful and inexpensive salad does not need to be authentic to constitute an ideal late summer one-course lunch.

Stéphane, I’m sure that the tomatoes you find at these beautiful Mountain View or Los Altos farmer’s markets, that you are so lucky to have nearby all year long, must still be superb, sweet and juicy in early September. And I also guess that the time that you will be able to spend in your kitchen or outside at the barbecue to prepare meals will be limited for next few months. You even can forget about those olives and the anchovies that somebody close to you does not like and rename it the "deconstructed the summer vegetable and tuna salad"
So I would like to remind you of a simple to fix late summer lunch or early dinner dish that your mother and I have been very fond of since our student days in Aix-en-Provence: La Salade Niçoise. It is a meal in itself and with a few slices of a good baguette to mop the olive-oil based dressing, and perhaps a couple of pieces of goat cheese, your appetite will be satisfied. I just made a simplified version of this salad last week-end for our Sunday lunch after finding nice plump tomatoes and fresh small red potatoes at the Evanston Farmer’s market and, along with a bottle of Bandol Rosé, we enjoyed it a lot while our dining room table was still bathed in the sunlight peering through he leaves of the plane-tree in front of our building. I have to admit that the quality of the sunlight was unfortunately already pre-autumnal, something that always makes you mother a bit sad. But to get back to the salade niçoise and the way I prepare it; As you can guess its name derives from the city of NICE, on the French Riviera, close the Italian border. In this area that used to be Italian until it was reunited with France in 1860, the food has always been influenced heavily by its neighbor, the seafood found in the Mediterranean Sea, the olive oil harvested in its back country, and the plentiful sources of locally-grown vegetables and fruits. I’m referring to red and green peppers, white (coco), grey, broad, green, and small fava beans, all kinds of onions, tomatoes, baby purple artichokes, miniature zucchini and their blossoms, boletus mushrooms, purple asparagus, small potatoes, chard, purple garlic, and of course these famous anf flavorful tiny black ‘’niçoise’’ olives. And of course it is the area where the ‘’mesclun’’ of various types of lettuce and greens was born. But some people (Patricia Wells among them) think that this type of blend has its origin in nearby Italian Liguria. As well as lemons, clementines, black currant, peaches, etc.  
A few things to know about the original and perhaps authentic way to prepare Salade Niçoise:

They are several dozens of recipes for making a salade niçoise, and I am not even sure that a single one can qualify as authentically ‘’niçoise’’. I checked in several books of recipes from both Provence and the Côte d’Azur, the area between St. Tropez and the Italian Border, and the only thing I can say for sure is that originally in NICE this salad consisted of only RAW vegetables. You would never find potatoes, or vinegar in it. And the old Niçois NEVER MIXED tuna and anchovies; it was either one or the other. The only cooked ingredient was the hard-boiled eggs. The raw vegetables used were: Twice salted seeded, drained, and then quartered tomatoes, thinly sliced red and green peppers, small purple baby artichoke hearts, some hearts of celery, tiny fresh fava beans, young spring green onions, small black olives, and that’s it. Later they added some slice of cucumbers and a mesclun of lettuce and green herbs like parsley, chervil, and chives. Some chopped fresh basil could sometimes be added at the end. Now, another point of contention is the type of beans that you use. In most French restaurant nowadays a salade niçoise include cooked small green beans. That is what I use. But in the ‘’authentic salade niçoise ‘’ only raw fresh small green fava beans, called ‘’fevettes’’ there, or ‘’coco’’ (fresh white) beans coming from pale green pods, were used. As far as onions are concerned, most people use very finely sliced small red or white onions as a garnish. But in the real niçoise you should use ‘’cébettes’’, very young spring green onions whose white bulbs are very small. They look a bit like very small leeks, and over here their counterparts would be scallions. I personally use thin slices of red or torpedo onions in the summer. Now as far as choosing the kind of flaked tuna you will put in the middle of the serving dish, it should always be CANNED TUNA, and if possible Italian canned tuna packed in olive oil. Never seared fresh tuna like too many American restaurants have taken the habit to do since the early 80`s under the influence of the new Californian Cuisine. If you use anchovies, instead of tuna or in addition to tuna like most French restaurant do, use flat canned unsalted Italian or Portuguese anchovies packed in olive oil. Not the Danish or Norwegian type. Now, as far as the dressing is concerned: In the original Salade Niçoise, they seasoned the various raw vegetables with salt and pepper, and doused the sliced boiled eggs and the vegetables with a good quality extra-virgin French olive oil. No vinegar was used. But nowadays most restaurants, as well as me, pour some vinaigrette on it before serving. See my own way of preparing a vinaigrette down below. Lastly, never mix your Nicoise Salad in a salad bowl, like you would do with another lettuce-based salad. Serve it on an oval porcelain or ceramic platter where it is much easier and prettier to assemble the various components. The platter should be rubbed with one clove of freshly peeled garlic. Also use only black olives and not green olives to garnish the salad.

My own recipe for an easy to make Salade Niçoise: 

For 2 people: Ingredients: 6 small red potatoes 4 ripe medium size field-grown tomatoes (no Roma or beefsteak type) ¼ Lb fresh small French green beans, left whole but trimmed at both ends. One medium size red onion, or two small red torpedo onions, thinly sliced 2 fresh large eggs, hard boiled or semi-hard boiled, quartered when cold About 12 leaves of l Boston or Red leaf lettuce, washed and dried 1 clove of garlic Some fresh parsley, chives, or chervil, minced I can of Italian tuna packed in olive oil, drained and flaked with a fork About 6 flat fillets of canned anchovies, drained and patted with a paper towel 10 black olives with the pits: Niçoises or oil cured Moroccans, or Kalamatas (I use these) Optional: chopped fresh basil (5 leaves) instead of herbs For the vinaigrette: About 2 Tbsp of Red wine vinegar, 2Tbsp of Dijon mustard, 1/3 cup of extra-virgin olive oil Salt & Pepper  

Preparing the ingredients: Steam the red potatoes for 20/25 minutes with skin on. Set aside on a plate to cool. Remove skin and slice them 1/4 inch thick Wash, dry and cut the tomatoes in 6 segments. Salt them and let them drain for 20 minutes. Remove seeds delicately. Cook trimmed green beans in salted gently boiling water for 12 minutes. They should remain firm. Drain rinse under cold water and let them cool down, Before using gently pat them dry with paper towel Thin slice one medium size red onion Boil 2 eggs in salted water for 10 minutes. Cool then down in cold water, then peel and quarter them. Rinse the olives under cold water for 2 minutes (except if oil cured) Chop fresh parsley and chives (or chervil)  

Preparing the vinaigrette: In a large bowl put 2 Tbsp of Dijon mustard at room temperature, Add some salt and black pepper to taste. Wisk 2Tbsp of red wine vinegar in the mustard until you obtain a smooth mix Slowly incorporate, while whisking all the time, 1/3 of a cup of Extra-Virgin olive oil. Continue to whisk until all the ingredients are emulsified into a smooth sauce without letting the vinegar separate from the oil.  
Assembling the dish: Rub a medium-size porcelain platter with fresh garlic. Arrange leaves of lettuce to cover the platter entirely Alternate slices of potatoes and quartered eggs on the upper side of the platter Arrange the segments of tomatoes on a lower rank Alternate hem with fillets of anchovies Place a mound of flaked tuna in the center of the dish Intersperse with olives Dispose sliced red onions over the vegetables Sprinkle chopped herbs all over Just before serving drizzle the vinaigrette on each component Bon Appétit


  1. Hmmm....Seems I may be an accidental purist when it comes to Salade Niçoise. I never use both tuna and anchovies, simply to keep the salt level down. I don't use potatoes, usually, because I too like my salad with bread (too many carbs).

    And I would never use anything but canned tuna.

    This is probably blasphemy, but I confess anyway: I have used a homemade honey dijon or a homemade creamy onion dressing on my Salade Niçoise.

    A few years ago, we were in Paris on May 1. We arrived at a small cafe near L'Hopital Pitié Salpetriere at closing time, but the owner graciously made us a Salade Nicoise after I asked him for the easiest and fastest dish he could make. My thought was we'd wolf it down and allow him to close. But no, about a half dozen new customers, seeing us eating, also sat down at tables. The owner never batted an eyelash or uttered a harsh word. He simply shrugged his shoulders and served them all.

    He understood m fractured schoolgirl French, too.

    So much for Parisian rudeness.

  2. Mimi,

    I'm with you 100% as far as using variations on the theme of dressing a nicoise salad.
    I'm myself much less of a purist nowadays than I used to be
    Many years back, when I was discovering American dressings, I even used Durkee dressing and sort of liked it.

  3. This is a French classic I have never made and only rarely eaten.

    Etrange, non?