Nice is our favorite city in France, possibly the world. With its spectacular placement between the Alps and the Mediterranean, historic old town, vibrant street market and upscale shops, it’s always a pleasure to visit.
At our favorite restaurant in the old town, Bistro d’Antoine, I recently ordered the salade Niçoise at the urging of our waitress who assured me that it was both “differente et delicieuse”. On one side was a pile of dressed roquette (arugula). In the middle were a couple of house-cured anchovies, a small piece of grilled fresh tuna, and a beautiful barely-cooked half egg. On the other side was a pile of finely chopped and dressed veggies – fava beans, fresh peas, baby artichokes, fennel, zucchini, radish, red and green peppers, tomatoes, basil and olives -that Antoine the owner painstakingly ennumerated, none of them cooked. And the fresh anchovies and tuna? “I never use anything canned”, he explained.
It was indeed so delicious that we hastened to make it a few days later, including curing our own fresh anchovies, but for us it was a “new” salad, not the Niçoise we’ve known and been making for centuries.
There are basically three kinds of Salade Niçoise – the original (stoutly defended by locals as the only authentic one) which has no COOKED vegetables of any sort; the one served almost universally which includes COOKED potatoes and green beans; and one that has emerged in recent years which is topped with a piece of grilled fresh tuna instead of the more traditional canned. Our preferred version is the second one. The good thing about it is that it’s suitable for so many occasions – lunch, a simple summer dinner for four or a larger gathering, and kids love it.
I must admit that I’m fairly rigid about what goes into my salade Niçoise. The essentials: lettuce, tomatoes, hard-boiled eggs, black olives, cooked green beans and potatoes, canned tuna and anchovies; optionals: radish, sweet white onion, red pepper slices, capers and fresh herbs.
1/2 lb. green beans (the freshest and youngest you can find)
1 lb. new potatoes, either red or white skinned
2 or 3 ripe tomatoes (or cherry tomatoes), quartered or halved lettuce
basil leaves (optional)
a dozen black olives
1 can or bottle of the best tuna (preferably Spanish or Italian) in olive oil
1 can flat anchovies (or packed in salt or home cured)
For the vinaigrette:
1 clove garlic
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon vinegar
1/2 cup olive oil
Crush the garlic with the salt in a pestle and mortar. Add the vinegar, then the olive oil and a good grinding of pepper.
Top and tail the beans and cook them to the degree of “doneness” that you like. Immediaty rinse them in cold water to stop the cooking and drain well. Mix with a teaspoon of the vinaigrette.
Cook the potatoes (15-25 minutes, depending on size). If they’re small, I like to leave the skins on. Otherwise peel. When cool enough to can handle, cut into bite-size pieces and dress with a good tablespoon of the vinaigrette. You can add herbs if you like – tarragon, parsley, and chives are all a welcome addition.
Put the eggs in a pan of cold water. Bring just to the boil, cover, turn off the heat and leave for 12 minutes. Rinse in cold water, peel and cut in half lengthwise.
Now comes the fun part – assembling the dish. You will need a fairly large platter. I like to line it with beautifully fresh lettuce leaves, torn into manageable pieces. Then I put the tuna in the center and surround it with piles of potatoes, green beans, sliced tomatoes, and the halved eggs. Let your artistic juices flow. Decorate with the olives, anchovies, and, if you choose, any of the following: basil leaves, thin slices of red pepper, radishes, sweet onion and capers. Dressing the dish is a bit tricky. You already have some vinaigrette on the beans and potatoes but now you have to distribute the rest of it, particularly on the tomatoes and lettuce. Sometimes it’s easier to just spoon it onto individual plates after serving. But do serve it at once – with some crusty French bread and a glass or two of Provençal rosé. Bon appetit!
Variations: To make Bistro Antoine’s salade Nicoise, chop a selection of the vegetables mentioned into a dice and dress with the vinaigrette in my recipe, saving some for the roquette. Serve with tuna, either cooked or canned, anchovies, and hard boiled eggs.
For version three, grill a 12-oz. piece of tuna on the barbeque or a grill pan and place it in the center of “my” salad instead of the canned tuna. Three oz. a person should be plenty.
One could long debate the authenticity of any single recipe. My only guarantee is that, whatever recipe you follow, you and your fellow eaters are in for a treat.