TGIFOOD

SALAD ISSUE

Throwback Thursday: Salade Niçoise

Throwback Thursday: Salade Niçoise
Tony Jackman’s salade Niçoise. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

Tomatoes, anchovies and olive oil. That was all that the poor people of Nice would find in, or expect of, the salad of their port town in the 19th century. Even today, the dish that it was to evolve into remains beloved by people all over the world.

This is the perfect and most desirable salad that is sublime in its simplicity. A perfect Niçoise is as refreshing as the sea breeze that drifts off the Mediterranean and through the old port city. But this adored French salad gets purists steamed up like few other recipes do.

Should it boast anchovies and tuna, or both, or neither? Should there be potatoes and green beans in it (many French would yell, “Non!”), and who first included them? (Read on for the answer.) 

Should there be mayonnaise or a vinaigrette, or merely olive oil? Cos lettuce or baby gems, or should there even be lettuce in it at all? Who’s right and who’s wrong? In the end, it’s all a matter of heated opinion.

Wikipedia cites a recipe in a 1913 book, La Cuisine à Nice, by one Henri Heyraud, that included tomatoes, anchovies, artichokes, olive oil, red peppers and black olives, but excluded both tuna and lettuce. The dressing in Heyraud’s book included olive oil, vinegar, mustard and fines herbes. As with much French food, fresh vegetables are key and always have been, so whatever is fresh and young in Spring, for example, might go in, not least the green beans that are a traditional component.

Today, boiled baby potatoes are almost invariably featured in a salade Niçoise, but one former mayor of Nice, Jacques Médecin, is cited by Wikipedia as having written in his 1972 cookbook, Cuisine Niçoise: Recipes from a Mediterranean Kitchen: “Never, never, I beg you, include boiled potato or any other boiled vegetable in your salade Niçoise.” That appears to have fallen on millions of deaf ears. (In my recipe, as in many others, I blanch the green beans briefly.)

His version was all about tomatoes, in line with 19th century tradition, which should be very well salted and moistened with olive oil. The stern Monsieur Médecin did use hard-boiled eggs, “and either anchovies or tuna, but not both”, the online encyclopaedia adds, and he “incorporated raw vegetables such as cucumbers, purple artichokes, green peppers, fava beans, spring onions, black olives, basil and garlic, but no lettuce or vinegar”. 

He certainly got one thing right when he observed: “As the various ingredients that go into salade Niçoise are of bright and contrasting colours, they can be arranged most decoratively in the salad bowl.” That’s the beauty of a Niçoise, apart from its fresh, bright delight on the palate. It’s hard not to make it look gorgeous, and anyone with an artist’s eye will relish laying out the various ingredients to create a temporary work of art.

There have been versions with capers (which makes perfect sense), sweetcorn, shallots, mayonnaise and lemon. Paul Bocuse added chervil, while Pierre Franey included avocadoes, writing, “I am convinced that had avocados been native to Provence, they would have been an inevitable ingredient in the celebrated salad of that region, the salad Niçoise.” Though that argument could be used for anything.

It was Auguste Escoffier who added the potatoes and green beans, and they remain controversial among some purists. But recipes evolve over time, and one is no less valid than the other. In the end, shouldn’t we just make it the way we think it will be the most delicious?

The vehemence of some purists is best demonstrated in the example of a recipe posted to Facebook in 2016, which was met with a barrage of vitriol from trolls calling her inclusion of potatoes and green beans sacrilege and accusing her of violating ancestral traditions.

Julia Child used both tuna and anchovies, and, given that no less than Escoffier, who was born near Nice, used both potatoes and green beans, I am not using only one or two or three of the aforementioned, but all four. I also got quite adventurous with the dressing, and if you try it I think you will see why I’m so pleased with it.

My recipe is intended as a meal in itself and will serve four as a main course or more as a starter or side dish.

(Serves 4)

Ingredients

1 fat garlic clove, peeled and cut in half

Cos/romaine lettuce, enough to fill the base of your chosen platter or bowl

12 baby potatoes, boiled or steamed, unpeeled

2 x 170 g cans of tuna chunks in oil (not shredded, and do not drain the cans)

16 baby roma tomatoes, halved, or 2 large tomatoes, quartered

4 medium-boiled eggs (see method), cooled and halved

16 young green beans, blanched and refreshed

3 or 4 anchovy fillets, whole

16 black olives of the best quality you can find

For the dressing:

1 garlic clove, smashed and then very finely chopped

1 tsp of the brine from the jar of anchovy fillets

2 Tbsp of the drained oil from the cans of tuna

Juice of 1 small lemon

1 Tbsp Dijon mustard

3 Tbsp olive oil

2 anchovy fillets, chopped

Salt, lightly

Black pepper to taste

Method

Boil or steam the potatoes (unpeeled but washed) and leave them to cool. Halve them and let them cool further.

Boil the eggs until just set, neither soft nor hard; it’s that in-between character that is perfect. Refresh under cold running water while still shelled, then deshell them and slice in half lengthwise. Here’s a tip: keep dipping the eggs in cold water while removing the shells, it helps them separate from the egg neatly.

For the dressing, add some of the oil from the tuna cans, the olive oil, lemon juice, brine, garlic and two chopped anchovies to a bowl and vigorously stir in the mustard until it emulsifies. Season with a little salt and black pepper and stir.

When the potatoes have cooled to room temperature, pour half of the dressing into a bowl and toss the potatoes in it to coat.

Prepare all your vegetable ingredients: wash and dry the tomatoes and lettuce, blanch the green beans in boiling water for a minute, refresh under cold water and drain; have everything to hand, including the olives in their jar and a spoon to take them out with.

Choose a nice big platter or bowl rather than a conventional deep salad bowl, as this salad is designed to look marvellous as well as taste delicious. Rub the cut garlic all over the back and sides.

Place the lettuce leaves around first. (I had no choice but to use iceberg lettuce as there was nothing else in my entire small town.) Add chunks of tuna here, and then the halved baby potatoes, then intersperse them with tomatoes, halved eggs, black olives, and finally the green beans and three anchovy fillets.

Spoon or drizzle the remaining dressing over, and then finish with a few grindings of black pepper. DM/TGIFood

Follow Tony Jackman on Instagram @tony_jackman_cooks.

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