Niçoise Salad is a lot like jambalaya in that there are endless variations and much quibbling over the “right” way to make the dish. These two contrasting foods also share deep geographical roots. As jambalaya hails from Louisiana (and exact manifestations vary depending upon where in Louisiana) so Niçoise salad has its roots in Côte d’Azur, better known as the French Riviera.
Sadly, I’ve never been. But if I close my eyes and breath just right while I chew a bite of Niçoise Salad, I can imagine the sound of the ocean and the warmth of the sunshine. Of course, I might not be eating the “right” salad. The UK’s darling periodical the Guardian once gave significant column inches to hash out the best ingredient list for the perfect version. It also noted that the ideal is probably just out of grasp:
Of course none of them will quite match up to the perfect salade niçoise you had on holiday a few summers back, your table set under a white parasol just a couple of steps from the beach. You were tanned, your shoulders sparkled with sand and you had the quietly smug smile of someone who has had sex three times in the last 24 hours. Sadly, there is no seasoning quite so tasty as nostalgia.
Undoubtedly true. And, while this dish won’t give you the glint of the beach on your skin, it will nicely fill your belly with its (nearly universally agreed upon) must-have ingredients: olives, beans and tomatoes. More often than not, Niçoise Salad also includes tuna (canned is a must among the French, seared preferred in American cuisine), potatoes and hard boiled eggs. More “authentic” versions prefer anchovies to tuna. And, of course, you can easily find sources that debate what kind of beans. (Green are definitely most common, but fava or broad are not unheard of.)
Then there is the lettuce. Julia Child (who surely introduced the salad to America) indicated the various components of the recipe (she calls for green beans, tomatoes, potatoes, canned tuna, anchovy filets and olives) should be served in neat little piles atop a bed of Boston lettuce. France? No lettuce at all; and sometimes artichoke hearts, raw red peppers, capers, but never potatoes.
What I’ve always loved about Niçoise Salad is that, while it requires a bit of time in the kitchen, it’s easy, mindless time. Perhaps just the sort of mental space to allow you to wander (at least in your private, imaginary life) to blue seas dotted with rocking yachts.
I was excited to recently find a recipe from Gourmet Magazine that uses grilled salmon in place of tuna and reincarnates the olives in the dressing – assuring for a tangy mouthful with every bite. Of course, this is the type of Niçoise Salad that would make Julia Child, let alone the entire nation of France, spin. Beyond the fish and olive “mishandling” it calls for arugula and (of all things) basil. And it’s all just tossed together into a big messy chopped salad-like creation. Hell, you can even sprinkle crisp bits of fish skin on top. Blasphemy!
But it’s so luscious! Every swallow is bursting with flavor. You’ll leave the table beyond satiated. Perhaps even with a smug smile, despite the lack of beach vacation.
Niçoise Salad with Black Olive Vinaigrette with (or without) Salmon
The recipe below is a direct reprint of the Gourmet Magazine version offered up on the Epicurious website. You’ll notice the comments on that site frequently suggest that the dressing for the dish be doubled – advice I heeded. My own advice is to ditch the whole Kalamata olives (which you are suppose to finely chop) and sub in 3+ tablespoons of olive tapenade. It’s much easier, faster and guarantees the mouthwatering flavor of briny olives in every bite which is, I think, the whole point of adding them to the dressing in the first place.
Of course, you could substitute marinated canned tuna or even seared tuna steak for the salmon, if you prefer something more traditional. Or, if you don’t want fish, I think this dish would make a lovely vegetarian meal by simply omitting it. The potatoes add plenty of substance while the eggs pack a protein punch. If leaving out the anchovy paste (available from Amore in a convenient tube), consider adding a bit more garlic and making a paste with coarsely ground salt. (Though Amore also sells a garlic paste. Terribly expedient!)
- 10 pitted Kalamata olives, finely chopped
- 1 tablespoon finely chopped shallot
- 1 teaspoon finely chopped garlic
- 1 teaspoon anchovy paste
- 3 tablespoons red-wine vinegar
- 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped basil
- 3/4 pound small Yukon Gold or boiling potatoes
- 1 (1 1/4-pound) piece salmon fillet (preferably center-cut; about 1 inch thick) with skin
- 3/4 pound green beans, trimmed
- 1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
- 2 ounces baby arugula (4 cups)
- 2 hard-boiled eggs, cut into quarters
- Handful of small basil leaves
- 4 lemon wedges
- Prepare a gas grill for direct-heat cooking over medium heat
- Whisk together dressing ingredients in a bowl.
- Cover potatoes with water in a 4-quart pot and season well with salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, until just tender, 15 to 20 minutes.
- While potatoes cook, season salmon with 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Oil grill rack, then grill salmon, covered, turning once, until just cooked through, 8 to 10 minutes total. Cool slightly, then gently break into large flakes. If desired, reserve skin for crumbling over salad.
- Transfer potatoes with a slotted spoon to a bowl. Add green beans to boiling water and cook, uncovered, until crisp-tender, 4 to 5 minutes. Drain and transfer to an ice bath to stop cooking.
- Halve potatoes while still warm and toss with 2 tablespoons dressing.
- Toss green beans, cherry tomatoes, and arugula with enough dressing to coat, then toss with potatoes. Divide among plates with salmon and eggs. Sprinkle with basil (and salmon skin, if using). Serve with lemon wedges and remaining dressing.
yield: Makes 4 servings
active time: 45 min
total time: 45 min
Salmon can be cooked in an oiled hot grill pan (uncovered) or in a hot skillet with 1 tablespoon olive oil over medium-high heat.