Serve this Summer Classic as a Main Dish or Appetizer
Salade Niçoise was born in the French coastal Mediterranean city of Nice. The original Niçoise salad reportedly was a simple affair of largely uncooked ingredients: lettuce (though some insist the original didn’t include this), black olives, sliced tomatoes, bell pepper, anchovies, and sometimes artichoke hearts. These ingredients were tossed with olive oil (no vinegar), minced garlic, and perhaps some herbs. The dish was served in small hors d’œuvre portions, often with a garnish of sliced hard-boiled eggs.
Over the years, peoples’ tastes evolved, and so did the recipe. In the United States today, Salade Niçoise is usually a substantial composed salad that may also include green beans, potatoes, and canned (or seared fresh) tuna.
In its modern form, Salade Niçoise makes a generous (but not heavy) main course, perfect for hot summer weather. With the addition of some good quality bread and a nice wine, it’s a great company meal.
Recipe: Salade Niçoise
This recipe serves 6 as a main course or 12 as a starter. You can easily adjust the quantities to meet your needs. My recipe riffs off numerous other versions, but owes the most to Julia Child, who offers several recipes for Salade Niçoise in her various cookbooks. In my opinion, her best and most complete discussion of this dish can be found in From Julia Child’s Kitchen.
For the Salad:
- ½ of the French Potato Salad recipe
- 6 hard-boiled eggs, sliced (or halved lengthwise or quartered) (use use my hard-boiled egg recipe if you don’t have a favorite one of your own)
- ½ to 1 pound strings beans, trimmed, cooked, refreshed in ice water, and dried (see step 3 in procedure)
- 1 large or 2 small heads of lettuce (Boston bibb is ideal; green leaf works well too)
- 3 cans good quality tuna packed in olive oil (see notes)
- 1 pint grape or cherry tomatoes, whole or halved (you can also substitute 4 or 5 full-size tomatoes, sliced; see notes)
- ¾ - 1 cup black olives (preferably Niçoise olives, though Kalamatas work well too; pitted or not – see notes)
- 1 can anchovies (optional; or you can substitute salt packed anchovies; see notes)
- 4 tablespoons capers (optional)
- 1 big handful of parsley, washed, stems removed, and leaves minced
- 1 clove garlic minced fine (increase to 2 cloves if you particularly like garlic)
- 2½ - 3 tablespoons wine vinegar, lemon juice, or a combination of the two
- ~ 2/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
- herb of choice (tarragon works well)
- freshly ground black pepper
- Prepare the French Potato Salad using this recipe. You may prepare this ahead, but if you do so, remove it from refrigerator 20 minutes or so before assembling the salad so that it has time to come to room temperature.
- If you don’t have hard-boiled eggs on hand, prepare them now using my hard-boiled egg recipe.
- Cook the string beans. Put a large pot of water (at least 4 quarts) on to boil. Meanwhile, snap the ends off and wash the beans. When the water comes to a boil, salt it well (using 2 tablespoons of table salt or about 3 tablespoons of kosher salt), add beans, and cover pot so water returns to boil. When water boils, set timer for 4 minutes and uncover. At the 4-minute mark, start testing (pull out a bean and bite into it). You want the beans to be cooked, but with just a little “bite” to them. The cooking time usually is 5 or 6 minutes. When beans are done, drain them into a colander, then add drained beans to a bowl of ice water (3 quarts of water with 2 cups of ice cubes added) and chill for 3 or 4 minutes. Drain beans again and spread them on a kitchen towel to dry.
- Wash lettuce, tear into small pieces.
- Open tuna and drain (I use a mesh strainer for this, suspending it by the tip and handle in my sink).
- Wash your tomatoes, and slice them if necessary. Have your olives, (optional) can of anchovies, and parsley at the ready. Drain capers if you are using (I often rinse them briefly too).
- Make vinaigrette as follows: Mince garlic well (or whirl it in a mini-food processor, or mash it against your cutting board with the side of a large knife blade). Then place garlic in small bowl, add about ¼ teaspoon of salt and, using a spoon, mash the garlic against the side of the bowl until it forms a paste (the grit of the salt helps this process). Add vinegar and/or lemon juice and whisk with the garlic to combine. Gradually add oil, beating to incorporate. (Alternative method: Rather than whisk everything together, you can also put the ingredients in a small jar or plastic bowl with lid, and shake vigorously to combine.) Taste at this point – you don’t want the vinaigrette to be too acidic. Add oil if necessary, and season to taste with salt, pepper, and herb of choice.
- Place lettuce in a large bowl (wider is better than deeper), add a couple of spoonfuls of the vinaigrette, and toss the lettuce. Add more vinaigrette if necessary. You don’t want the lettuce to be swimming in vinaigrette, but you do want the leaves nicely coated.
- Time to assemble the salad: Divide lettuce among serving plates. Lettuce forms the foundation of your salad, and you’ll compose the rest of the ingredients on top of it in a pleasing arrangement.
- Divide the potato salad among serving plates (I usually place the potato salad at one end of the plate).
- Add green beans to the same bowl you used to toss the lettuce, and toss with another spoonful or so of vinaigrette. Divide green beans among serving plates.
- Repeat this process with the tomatoes (you may prefer to just place the tomatoes on the lettuce and spoon some of the vinaigrette over them).
- Add olives to the serving plates.
- Flake tuna and divide among serving plates (I usually center the tuna on each plate, but do whatever looks best to your eye). Spoon some vinaigrette over both olives and tuna (optional).
- Slice hard-boiled eggs (or cut lengthwise in halves, or quarter). Arrange on serving plates.
- Open can of anchovies (if using), drain, and divide anchovies among serving plates (you will usually have enough anchovies to make a nice criss-cross or two on each plate).
- Scatter capers (if using) across each plate of salad; sprinkle parsley over each plate. Serve.
- With this dish, you can tailor both ingredients and quantities to suit your preferences. I rarely (as in never) make Salade Niçoise exactly the same way twice in a row. For one thing, certain ingredients just might not look good at the supermarket on the day I’m shopping for salad fixings. So, for example, although I love green beans in this recipe, if they look old or woody, I’m not buying. Also, I like to experiment. And our guests may not always appreciate some of the ingredients that I love (there’s a lot of resistance to anchovies out there).
- One thing I always do (though some cooks do not) is serve this salad on individual plates, building each salad from a bed of lettuce (see top 2 photos). Some people prefer to toss all the ingredients together and serve it up in a big bowl at table, allowing their guests to fill their plates. This is easier, but has some drawbacks. Often, the ingredients don’t get distributed equally among all the diners. And the salad doesn’t look nearly as enticing on the plate.
- Unless you’re buying locally grown tomatoes at the peak of the season, the ones you’ll find in the market will generally have little flavor. Grape and cherry tomatoes, however, usually taste pretty decent — and their flavor tends to hold up no matter what season it is. So unless I’m making a dish that requires tomato slices, grape or cherry tomatoes have become my default.
- Olives usually taste better with their pits intact, but pitted olives are much easier to eat. I often have canned Kalamata olives in my pantry, so they get used a lot. Olives from Nice (Niçoise) are ideal, but any Mediterranean olive works well. Many supermarkets now have “olive bars” with a variety of different kinds from which you can make a selection.
- I generally use good quality canned anchovies for this salad. But some people think salt-packed anchovies are superior. So you might want to try them if you can find them (check an Italian deli). A deli will sell just the number you need, which is convenient. To use, soak them to remove the salt (change the water a couple of times). About 15 minutes will generally be enough soaking time (though if they’re particularly salty, it may take up to an hour). You’ll also need to fillet them. You can use a pair of forks to separate the fillets from the backbone, or you can hold each anchovy under running water and, using your fingers, separate the fillet from the backbone. (All this effort may give you an appreciation for canned anchovies. That’s how it worked for me.)
- Although I like anchovies, I often omit them (in fact, I omitted them for the photos that accompany this recipe). Same thing with capers — they’re “authentic,” but I don’t always feel like using them.
- If you are adjusting recipe quantities, figure on using 1 egg and ½ can of tuna per person.
- Canned tuna is traditional for this dish. But you don’t want to buy an everyday brand of packed-in-water tuna. Instead, use high quality tuna that’s packed in olive oil. Progresso makes a quality product (you can find it at some supermarkets, or buy it through Amazon. Better yet are some of the Italian brands found in specialty or gourmet food stores.
- In recent years, some cooks have begun using fresh tuna in Salade Niçoise. Typically, the tuna will be served with a nice sear, but cooked rare-to-medium. Fresh tuna is a nice variation, and one that I have served. But, oddly enough, I don’t think the flavor of fresh tuna works as well as canned in this dish. Canned isn’t as fancy, but for this dish, it tastes better.
- I typically do not include green bell peppers (one of the “traditional” ingredients for Salade Niçoise) because I find their flavor jarring. But roasted red peppers are delish.
- Feel free to make ingredient substitutions to suit your taste. If an ingredient that is not listed here sounds to you like it would work well in this recipe, it probably will. Experiment and try it.
“Authentic” Salade Niçoise
This recipe is about as standard a version of Salade Niçoise as exists today. That said, however, there is much dispute about what the “authentic” dish should contain. The inclusion of potato salad in particular seems to exercise some purists, who consider potatoes to be sacrilege in this dish. I don’t know why. But then, I usually don’t understand the purity police. I happen to like potatoes in Salade Niçoise, so I always include them.
If anyone is inclined to get incensed about that, I would refer them to George Auguste Escoffier, who is credited with standardizing French cuisine, and whose recipes form the backbone of much modern French cooking. Escoffier was born in a village near Nice, and he began his cooking career (at age 13) in one of the city’s better restaurants. Given this background, I would say his pronouncements on Salade Niçoise carry some culinary weight.
In his Le Guide Culinaire (the bible of traditional French cooking), Escoffier decrees that among other ingredients, Salade Niçoise should contain “equal quantities of diced French beans, diced potato and quarters of tomatoes.” He omits tuna, but considers anchovies a must.
So there you have it. If potatoes were good enough for Escoffier, they’re good enough for me.
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