Tuesday, July 27, 2010

All Hail the Salad Nicoise

Photo Kendra Bailey Morris
So, last night's dinner consisted of the above-- locally grown green beans and potatoes, Hanover tomatoes, a couple of boiled eggs and a big jar of Spanish bonito tuna soaked in olive oil. A crusty baguette and a hunk of my favorite European-style butter, Plugra, rounded out the perfect meal for yet another searing day in ole Virginney.

My first love affair with this blanched and lightly dressed composed salad was as a culinary student at the Institute of Culinary Education in NYC. As we learned about blanching techniques and how to properly emulsify a vinaigrette, I couldn't help but feel rather Julia Childish in a newbie French kinda way. (By the way, Julia Child's recipe for salad nicoise is one of my all-time favs.) A classically prepared nicoise is a gorgeous salad with all its components gently mounded in the their proper place, all glistening with olive oil and minced fresh herbs.

I fell in love the nicoise all over again while visiting Grand Case Beach in French St. Martin. One afternoon, while sipping a crisp and lovely Aime Roquesante Cotes De Provence at a seaside brassiere, I ordered this little gem (along with a cheese and onion crisp bread pizza).
Photo Kendra Bailey Morris
As you can see, this salad, unlike the photo above it, is not composed but rather layered and tossed. The beauty of the salad nicoise is that, basically, you can make it however you want. As long as your foundation ingredients are there-- tuna, boiled eggs, tomatoes, green beans, potatoes, anchovies and of course, nicoise olives, the rest is up to you.

The salad I enjoyed in St. Martin incorporated onions, artichokes, even a bit of sprouts for garnish. I've enjoyed the nicoise with boquerones (white anchovies), freshly seared tuna instead of canned, capers, even pimentos, and with each variation, I relished each bite. What's important is not your chosen ingredients, but rather the method by which they are prepared.

Blanching is essential as the nicoise is typically not a raw salad per se. Carefully blanching your green beans, scoring and lightly boiling your tomatoes, and of course, cooking your potatoes and eggs are a must. Then, there's the vinaigrette. My favorite combination is classically French, and incorporates Dijon mustard, shallots, a little garlic, tarragon vinegar and lots of quality olive oil along with some fresh herbs (whatever I've got growing).

Finally, there's the tuna. I've seared it fresh on the grill, and I've poured it straight from the can, but every time I made sure the tuna was of the highest quality. The tuna in this dish is designed to shine. It's the star of the platter, so don't skimp here. If you're using canned, invest in imported tuna packed in olive oil, such as Italian or Spanish. Skip the Chicken of the Sea, even if it's packed in oil because it's probably low quality vegetable oil. Live a little and pay the extra couple of bucks to get the good stuff.

As the heat continues to rise (Lord knows it's been miserable in the Mid-Atlantic) consider this light refreshing meal as an alternative to firing up your oven, and if you can get a hold of a nice bottle of rose and a freshly baked baguette, you can spend the evening imagining your someplace else, perhaps a little cafe in St. Martin or a seaside patio along the French Riveria. Pin It Now!
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