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Tuna Salad Nicoise

If ever I see Salad Niςoise on the menu, my choice might just as well have been made for me. Every other listing on the menu gets obscured behind shower-glass. I can’t quite make it out. Reading glasses don’t help. That’s how much I love Salad Niςoise!

The first time I tried this salad, years ago,  I prepared it myself. Even though as newlyweds we were counting pennies, I was wanting, so badly, a new cookbook – something really amazing to add to my “library” of two.  (Or was it only one?) I’m still kind of perplexed at my choice, because I had next to no experience in the kitchen, but I thought at the time my selection made sense. “Why not start at the top and learn from Julia Child? She has her own TV show!  And she speaks French! She probably knows just about everything.” It was blind luck I suppose that I stumbled upon this salad before trying my hand at (deflating) a souffle, or braising beef tongue for Pot-au-feu (gag reflex), or making oeufs en gélee (poached eggs in aspic, if you can imagine!)   I fear I never would have found Salad Niςoise if I hadn’t happened upon it before the others!  Over the years, it’s undergone a few changes – but nothing major. Some things just possess that kind of status. They’ve earned their place. It’s the sort of thing that you’re a bit awed at the very sight of, you dip your head with respect, allow for a moment of silent appreciation, give in to the smile that’s forcing its way up, then raise two forks and begin! (OK, just one.)  For me, that’s Salad Niςoise. It gets me every time.

Tuna Salad Niςoise

(serves 4 main course meals)

This salad originated in Nice, France. It’s fresh, clean, light, summery, deliciously lemony, a little salty here and there…and is one of those things that’s far greater than the sum of its parts. It’s a composed dish – arranged in any manner that suits the artist – that would be you. The key though is to treat each component in a way that brings out the delicious best in it. The ingredients that are cooked are done so separately, and most are then tossed in a little vinaigrette  before being arranged on the platter. The components of this salad can ALL be prepared ahead of time, put in their own containers, loaded in the cooler and taken on a picnic, then artfully assembled on site! Can’t you just hear Julia now?  “Tres chic picnic!”

I happen to love seared Ahi. Rare. For me, a little satisfies deeply. But, if you don’t have access to it, or aren’t enamored of it, you can use a good canned albacore tuna – when packed in extra virgin olive oil its taste is very good. For years, I bought tuna packed in water, but I’ve learned since that loss of flavor is the price you pay for that exchange. Because more of you will probably opt for the canned tuna, I’ll write the recipe for that. If seared ahi is your preference, I’m assuming you’ll know just what to do – sear in very hot pan one minute or so per side.

Vinaigrette

  • 1  clove garlic, minced (or to your taste)
  • 3 Tablespoon fresh lemon juice
  • 1 Tablespoon wine vinegar (not balsamic)
  • 1-1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard or 1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
  • 2/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • Salt & Freshly ground pepper to taste
  • Fresh or dried herbs – especially fresh thyme leaves

Make a smooth paste of the minced garlic, combined with the salt. Whisk in lemon juice and wine vinegar. Add mustard. Slowly whisk in olive oil, or place it all in a lidded jar and shake until emulsified.

Salad Ingredients

  • 1 head butter lettuce
  • 1 bunch watercress (optional)
  • 8 plum tomatoes, cut in 1/2 lengthwise, (tossed with 2 T. olive oil & 1 T. balsamic vinegar)
  • 5 – 10 sprigs of thyme or lemon thyme
  • 1- 6 or 7 oz. can of albacore tuna in extra-virgin olive oil (preferably troll caught)
  • 3/4 pounds fingerling potatoes (or small white or Yukon Gold potatoes)
  • 4 hard-boiled eggs, cut in half
  • 1/3 cup (or more) Niςoise olives
  • 1/2 pound fresh green string beans
  • 5 anchovies packed in salt (or a 2-oz. tin of flat fillets in olive oil) – Optional ! 
  • lemon cut in wedges for serving

Serving suggestion: Serve with toasted crusty bread drizzled with olive oil.

I’m about to give you directions for slow-roasting the tomatoes with olive oil and thyme. They’re really delicious this way, and add a different dimension to this salad, but if you haven’t the time, or would just prefer them un-roasted, then skip to the next step.

Roasting tomatoes. Prepeat oven to 300°F. In a medium bowl, toss the tomatoes with 2 T. olive oil and 1 T. balsamic vinegar. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Transfer to a cooking sheet lined with parchment paper and place cut side down, with a sprig of fresh thyme tucked beneath. Bake for 45 minutes or 1 hour, or until tomatoes are “sun-dried” and lightly caramelized.

Hard cook eggs: Put eggs in a pot of cold water – the pot should be large enough for the eggs to sit in one layer on the bottom. Bring pan to boil and then immediately turn off the burner. Allow eggs to sit, covered, in the pan of hot water for exactly 15 minutes. Remove eggs from water and set out to cool for 2 minutes. Remove shells.  Cut in half, top to bottom. (Hint: freshest eggs peel best. If you have trouble removing the shell, inserting the tip of a wet teaspoon under an edge of the shell and running it up under it can help.)

Cut fingerling potatoes in half and place in a small pot of boiling, salted water. Cook until potatoes are just tender. Drain and place in a small bowl. While still warm, toss with enough vinaigrette to coat. (Some of this will be absorbed and you can add a little additional before plating.) Sprinkle with salt and pepper.

In a medium-large pot of boiling, generously-salted water cook the green beans. While they’re cooking, prepare a bowl of ice-water. Cook beans for only 3 to 4 minutes, until tender-crisp. Drain in colander and immediately submerge beans in ice water to bring to room temperature or cooler. Remove from ice-water and dry with clean dish towel or paper towels. Just before plating the beans, toss them in a little vinaigrette.

Wash and dry your lettuce. Now it’s time to assemble your masterpiece! Lettuce on bottom of your platter, and everything else where you want to see it. If you’re using watercress, tuck clusters of it in where there’s an opening around the edges. Drizzle a little extra olive oil and/or vinaigrette on anything that looks like it could use it.  A good spritz of fresh lemon juice is nice too. It’s a salad that lends itself to your interpretations.  If you use anchovies, some like to drape them over the eggs. Others like to roll them in little rounds and place them where they won’t “interfere” with anything else. (Those people don’t like anchovies.)

Everyone gets to dish up their own portions. This is very nicely accompanied by toasted rounds of crusty bread. And wine is nice too.

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ashley #

    Oh. My. Beauty. This is unbelievably gorgeous. I can’t wait to make this sometime. And I love your description of not only your salad nicoise love (by the way, how do you make that adorable tail on your “c?”), but also the naivete that led you to Julia Child. You made me smile (as you often do).

    July 4, 2011
    • Oh I do love it when you smile! Thank you always for your comments Ashley!

      July 4, 2011
  2. carolyn #

    This is the most beautiful nicoise I have seen. I would follow this salad anywhere!

    Spree, I love reading the little gems that come with your food…those brief, but very juicy background stories. Salad nicoise has more depth and life now that I know about your Julia Child’s cookbook. I’ll bet if there’s a photo of nicoise in hers it looks nothing like yours, n’est-ce pas? And I don’t see anchovies pictured on your plate or platter, which leads to a big assumption…

    Thank you for taking such care with each beautiful food morsel, arranging the parts delicately upon white plates in one harmonious, symphonic composition. Tres chic picnic!

    July 5, 2011
    • Now, that’s a logical assumption! However, I do love them, but my love does not.

      July 13, 2011
  3. Darlyn #

    Perfect for my wedding diet! Eat like a queen and still loose weight!

    July 5, 2011
  4. carolyn #

    Yesterday my kitchen wasn’t equipped to make this majestic nicoise salad. But what did happen is an example of something I’ve noticed occurs each day when I read love on the table. I get inspired. And it affects the way I prepare food, whether I am following a recipe of Spree’s or not. So I assesssed what I did have, tingling from her colors, textures, composition. I boiled some eggs, mixed my greens with oil and lemon, and sloshed some lemon/oil over red pear tomatoes. Then, carefully, referring to Spree’s photo, I arranged tiny bay shrimp in a clump over the greens, added the clump of egg, tomato, a chunk of fresh mozarrella, and a generous sprig of basil. It was sure no substitute for nicoise, which I plan to try. But the influence still elicited something delicious.

    July 6, 2011
    • I want to try YOUR salad, you little kitchen wizard!

      July 13, 2011

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