The beans in our garden are ready. As I was picking them, I got to thinking that young beans simply define the word “slender”, don’t you think? And that word reminded me of all the skinny French women in the south of France, and that image reminded me of a fabulous salad I had in Cannes, and as I picked my beans I knew I just had to make this beautiful Salade Niçoise.
Niçoise (pronounced “nee-swaz”) is a classic, composed whole-meal salad from Nice, a spectacular city on the Mediterranean coast of France. It is similar to our Cobb Salad, but oh-so-much better. There are a hundred and one variations of it, but most include a crisp bed of lettuce topped with summer-ripe tomatoes, the most tender green beans, baby potatoes, quartered hard-boiled eggs, fresh seared (or canned) tuna, and Niçoise olives all gently drizzled with a light vinaigrette, sometimes with anchovies. Can you tell I love this salad?
Everything about the lunch we had that day in the south of France was refreshing. After walking in the July heat all morning along the Boulevard de la Croisette, a promenade that runs along the beautiful beach in Cannes, then poking our heads in the upscale shops in the city centre, we were hot, tired, and thirsty. We turned into a shady alley just off the main street and found a tiny hole-in-the-wall restaurant with a checkered tablecloth and a welcoming waitress. Cold water, chilled wine and a spectacularly crisp Salade Niçoise served with a fresh baguette (that only the French seem to have mastered) refueled us, readying us for an afternoon of exploring.
This salad showed me, once again, that the best food is fresh food, and the freshest food is local food. The markets in Provence were bursting with just-picked produce from local farms. The colour and variety available made me wish I had my own kitchen there so I could sample it all. Looking at the photo above, I know that this Salade Niçoise owed its success to the fact that its ingredients were likely harvested the same day I had the pleasure of eating it. The crisp romaine leaves, firm sweet tomatoes, and fresh, not canned, tuna were dressed in a light vinaigrette, letting the natural flavours of the salad dominate. It was hard to leave the table.
Serves 6 as a meal
- 1 head crisp romaine lettuce
- 5 unpeeled new red or Yukon Gold potatoes, about 1-1/2 lb
- 1 lb green beans, trimmed
- 5 firm ripe tomatoes
- 1/2 small red or sweet white onion
- 4 hard-cooked eggs
- 1-1/2 lb fresh tuna fillets
- 2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
- salt and pepper to taste
- 1/3 cup Niçoise olives
- 2 tbsp finely chopped flat-leaved parsley
- 1/4 cup red wine vinegar
- 1 tbsp Dijon mustard
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 2 tsp anchovy paste (optional, but very good)
- 1/4 tsp each sea salt and freshly ground pepper
- 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- Prepare 4 hard-cooked eggs by adding to a small pan of boiling water for about 20 min. Cool.
- Using a whisk or a food processor, make the dressing by combining the vinegar, mustard, garlic, anchovy paste, salt and pepper; gradually add in oil until blended. Set aside to allow flavours to develop.
- In saucepan of boiling salted water, cover and cook potatoes just until tender, 20 to 25 minutes. Remove with slotted spoon, saving the water to cook the beans. Let the potatoes cool slightly, then cut into quarters.
- In the same pan, cook green beans until tender-crisp, 5 to 7 minutes. Drain and cool in cold water; drain well and pat dry.
- Cut each tomato into 6 wedges. Slice red onion. Peel hard-cooked eggs and cut eggs into quarters. Wash and dry lettuce and tear into bite sized pieces.
- Pre-heat your grill. Brush both sides of tuna with oil; sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place on greased grill over medium-high heat; close lid and grill, turning once, until firm and pink outside yet still rare inside, 6 to 8 minutes. Watch carefully as there is nothing worse than overcooked tuna! Cut into 1/4-inch (5 mm) thick slices.
- Arrange a bed of lettuce on platter and top with potatoes, beans, tomatoes, onion, eggs, tuna and olives; drizzle with dressing and sprinkle with finely chopped parsley. Pretend you’re back in that sidewalk cafe in France. Sigh.