Sunday, July 19, 2009

Salade Niçoise, and summer

Well, here we are in July—the heat of it, in fact, when in Santa Barbara the fog starts its lazy departure, making way for the quiet warmth of a coastal summer. When the days start getting hotter, there are a handful of things I crave—fresh lemonade, hazelnut gelato, ripe stone fruit in the peak of its ripeness, and, well, green salads.

Salads are not, I realize, a particularly seasonal food. After all, one can obtain fresh lettuce pretty much year round, especially in Southern California. But I can’t help but long for the delightful union of crisp salads and umbrella-shaded decks in the height of summer—alfresco dining at home, but in its finest hour. There is an art to composing a salad (just as there is to poaching an egg, as I mused upon in my last post), but a skill we have all had at practice at one time or another upon survey of the ubiquitous salad bar.
Lately, I often find myself making salads out of whatever I can find in the fridge—a half of an avocado, perhaps, or bit of soft goat cheese, just waiting to be crumbled atop some mixed greens. Salade Niçoise, however, is a salad one must plan for, usually, as it is quite unlikely to have all the ingredients on hand just by happenstance. For this reason, a glance at the ingredients list for a somewhat lazy salad-maker like myself can be a somewhat overwhelming experience. (Do not despair, as I almost did!!)

A Nicoise-type salad is something my mother has made at home for me at home, in all times of year. She grew up in France, where she got her first taste of niçoise, in the form of salad. Last time she made it when I was visiting we ate out on our deck, with a view of the garden. I think perhaps it gave me the inspiration for this post, one that has been long overdue. When I was in France I never actually didn't have Salade Niçoise, for no particular reason except that I never did make a trip down to Nice. But there was this one afternoon when my host family took me to their “country house,” about an hour and half drive south from Paris. The first full day we were there, Madame made a big salad for a late lunch, and although I don’t remember the ingredients precisely, it most certainly had egg and green beans, with the most wonderful vinaigrette. It was by no shape or form a Niçoise salad, but it had the same kind of air—Mediterranean, sun-drenched—blessed with the essence of the olive, the lemon, the saltiness of oily fish.It was one of the memorable meals she made during my stay. Just sitting there with Madame and Monsieur, in that huge, cool, tiled house, munching on greens, I felt for a moment a relief from the frantic anxiety of searching for the right word. Instead, I found that the simple hum of satisfaction—some enthusiastic mumbling between bites of
“très bien, Madame…merci beaucoup”—was all that was necessary to communicate my delight.

The way my mother makes it is not the classical version either, but I love it all the same. She mixes the tuna with the hard-boiled eggs and a bit of mayonnaise and chopped Kalamata olives, and serves it with the greens and potatoes. This last time around, I more or less followed Julia Child’s recipe for Salade Niçoise, just for fun. Through a bit of research I found her recipe online, and adapted it so it only serves 2-3. I found tuna packed in olive oil, and then picked up a head of green-leaf lettuce, some green beans and eggs from the Farmer’s market. I made the vinaigrette with Dijon mustard, lemon juice and red wine vinegar, tasting so perfectly citrusy and pungent. I hard-boiled my eggs and cooked some little new potatoes. I blanched the green beans and quartered a roma tomato. I didn’t find Niçoise olives, but I did find Kalamata olives, which I think are a good substitute. I even got some anchovies, which are always optional, but I think they add a lot.

It all sort of came together in the end, bursting with colors and textures, channeling the South of France and the umbrella-covered table of Home, all in one bite.

Salade Niçoise
Adapted from Julia Child, via YumSugar

For salad:
1 head tender green-leaf lettuce, such as Butter (or even mixed greens), washed and dried
½ pound green beans, cooked and refreshed
1-1/2 tablespoons minced shallots
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1-2 ripe red tomatoes, cut into wedges (or 10 to 12 cherry tomatoes, halved)
3 or 4 "boiling" potatoes, peeled, sliced, and cooked
One can chunk tuna, preferably oil-packed
2 hard boiled eggs, peeled and halved
1 freshly opened can of flat anchovy fillets, optional
1/3 cup small black Niçoise-type olives (or Kalamata)
3 tablespoons minced fresh parsley

For Vinaigrette:
1/2 tablespoon finely minced shallot or scallion
1/2 tablespoon Dijon-type mustard
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/2 tablespoon wine vinegar
1/3 to 1/2 cup excellent olive oil, or other fine, fresh oil
Freshly ground pepper

1. Make vinaigrette: Either shake all the ingredients together in a screw-topped jar, or mix them individually as follows. Stir the shallots or scallions together with the mustard and salt. Whisk in the lemon juice and vinegar, and when well blended start whisking in the oil by droplets to form a smooth emulsion. Beat in freshly ground pepper. Taste (dip a piece of the salad greens into the sauce) and correct seasoning with salt, pepper, and/or drops of lemon juice.
2. Arrange the lettuce leaves on a large platter or in a shallow bowl.
3. Shortly before serving, toss the beans with the shallots, spoonfuls of vinaigrette, and salt and pepper.
4. Baste the tomatoes with a spoonful of vinaigrette.
5. Place the potatoes in the center of the platter and arrange a mound of beans at either end, with tomatoes and small mounds of tuna at strategic intervals. Ring the platter with halves of hard-boiled eggs, sunny side up, and curl an anchovy on top of each if using. Or, if just making one or two servings, simply arrange onto individual plates or in shallow bowls.
6. Spoon a touch more vinaigrette over all, if desired; scatter on olives, parsley, and serve.

Serves 2-3 (with extra vinaigrette and lettuce for next time).