One could write at least a novella on le salade Nicoise – indeed, foodies collectively have written several – and still fail to define what must, and what must never, find its way to the plate (some excellent arguments about what might be definitive, as well as summary reviews of the more authoritative recipes, may be found here and here). Or one could do as I have done, and thumb through some of the reference points for classic French (and specifically Provencal) cooking, say Gastronomique (Larousse) , The Cuisine of the Sun (M. Johnston), and Mastering the Art of French Cooking (J. Child). One might also, and rightly, compare the lot of it to the recipes of Auguste Escoffier – the “king of chefs, and the chef of kings” – who happened to born in (or nearly in) Nice, and who provides his take as version as No. 2015 in Le Guide Culinaire. Regardless, upon distilling the mash, you’ll inevitably find at least as much contradiction as you will coherence, even about the most seemingly fundamental aspects:
- You must never use lettuce. Or, you must always use lettuce, but only Gem, Bibb, or a similarly tender and unobtrusive leaf. (I’ve only ever been served the with-lettuce version, although I see no reason why you couldn’t make it more like a chopped vegetable salad and skip the leaves – particularly if you use a broad array of raw vegetables.)
- You must only use raw vegetables, including tomatoes as the centerpiece, as well as baby artichokes, lima beans, bell peppers, cucumber, fennel and radishes. Except, of course, for the black olives. And maybe the capers, if you’re using them, but generally you shouldn’t. (I’ve never been served a version with artichokes, beans, cucumber, fennel, and radish, although I’ve probably had each individually or in some combination. The central role of tomatoes, however, seems one of the few irreducible constants.)
- Either you must never use blanched haricots verts or boiled potatoes – or, they are essential. (I am sure that the raw-vegetable version is outstanding, but I love the extra heft given the dish by the starch from potatoes and beans, particularly if you’re serving the salad as a main course for dinner, as I was last night, and particularly in winter.)
- You must include either tuna or anchovies, but never both. If you do use tuna, you must only use canned, oil-packed, Mediterranean tuna, never water-packed, and certainly never fresh. (Apparently, it was Escoffier who “added” tuna in the first place, and it has been broadly considered to be mandatory ever since. I greatly prefer it this way, with both, although anchovies alone – if of sufficiently high quality and in adequate quantity to flavor the whole of the dish – would certainly be fine. I love seared tuna, but please don’t put it on a salad and call it Nicoise.)
- Hard-boiled eggs (oeufs dur to the French – cooked through, but just, with yolks that do not cake and crumble) are mandatory. Or maybe they’re verboten – none other than Monsieur Escoffier himself left them out. (I’ve never been served a Nicoise without eggs, and nor do I want to – I’m sure it’s fine without, just as I’m sure it’s better with.)
- The only acceptable dressing is a simple vinaigrette of oil, vinegar, salt, pepper, mustard and – depending whom you ask – fresh garlic and fines herbs. (I adamantly agree on the dressing – keep it simple, and don’t screw it up. I actually didn’t use garlic last night, but knowing what I do of the cuisine of the Sud-Ouest and the dish itself, next time I will.)
- You should definitely add finely sliced red or green onions. Or, really, you shouldn’t. (I don’t have a strong opinion on this one, as I like the slightly bitter heat and purple color they add to the salad, but generally find raw onions overpowering. I have not, generally, been served raw onions on my salad, but I won’t object, so long as there are not too many, and they are very finely sliced.)
- The salad is never to be tossed; prep the components individually, and compose the salad in layers, right before service. (This is absolutely correct, as any attempt at tossing will only serve to break apart the eggs and cause all the otherwise distinct components to mash together, destroying the essential sensation of all those discretely defined elements acting both independently assertive and perfectly harmonious.)
So, sitting here just after the equinox, on the heels of a preposterously late growing season – late enough for sweet bell peppers in winter, although certainly not tomatoes – what did I do? I raided the closest farm stand and our local healthy-foods store – yielding, jointly, organic sweet red peppers, baby new potatoes, green beans, red onion, and a Bibb-like head of lettuce; a basket of truly free-range eggs; and imported Italian sardines and tuna, packed in olive oil – and followed Ms Child’s recipe, more or less to a “T”, minus the tomatoes. I’m quite certain that, regardless of whatever else I did rightly or wrongly, the absence of tomatoes precludes me from calling this a true Salade Nicoise. But I’m equally certain that it was better than the vast majority of the version I’ve been served, and that it was a far sight better than waiting until next July or August for a nice tomato.
Classic Salade Nicoise (Adapted from J Child)
- Make a few cups’ worth of cold French-style potato salad (boil the potatoes, peel and slice them when just done, and dress with white wine and a simple vinaigrette of olive oil, wine vinegar, mustard, lemon juice, and parsley). Be sure not to overcook the potatoes or they’ll fall apart on the plate.
- Blanch a few cups of green beans in salted water. Err on the side of al dente.
- Gently cook through 2-4 eggs (for a room temperature egg, put them in cold water, bring rapidly to a boil, then turn off the heat, cover for 10 minutes, and cool rapidly in ice water – this will result in a fully cooked egg with a dark yellow and n0t-chalky yolk). Allow eggs, potatoes and beans to cool (this may all be done ahead, but don’t dress the beans).
- Julienne a sweet red pepper and a few anchovy fillets.
- Just before serving, prepare a cup of classic French vinaigrette with garlic and freshly chopped green herbs – parsley, basil, chives, tarragon – although, personally, I am not at all crazy about Tarragon in this dish. Dress the tomatoes and beans, allowing the tomatoes to “bleed out” some of their liquids. (Simply ignore the tomatoes if you’re doing this in winter, but consider an extra pepper for color and be sure the whole of the dish has adequate acidity.)
- Separate and then dress the salad leaves and arrange in a large bowl (or on individual plates – but it makes a really nice “family-style” dish as well).
- Arrange a bed of potatoes, green beans, and tomatoes on top of, and encompassed by, the bed of lettuce leaves.
- Intersperse with a random pattern of tuna chunk (be sure to get an Italian tuna, packed in olive oil; for an incomparable treat, get a can of “tuna belly” – essentially, sushi-grade toro that has been canned in olive oil and salt – very expensive, but insanely good), quartered egg (as always, very fresh and free-range), and black olive (preferably an oil-cured black olive from Provence), and drape the julienne strips of pepper and anchovy over the top.
- Alternatively, compose the salad – either on top of a bed of dressed leaves, or without lettuce entirely – in sections on the plate, a quadrant of tuna, a little pile of beans, one of tomatoes, etc.
- Serve with a good crusty sweet baguette and a chilled rose.
- If you can get everything but tomatoes – please, please do not use out of season tomatoes for this dish – then make it like I did in the picture. It may not transport you to Nice, but it’s definitely the next best thing.