The Salad from Nice
August 22, 2015
When we lived in Menton for three months some twenty years ago, we ate often at a family-owned restaurant whose chef, Ninetto, would come out from the kitchen and talk to us. He frequently invited us to come watch his boules games, for playing boules seemed to be his primary interest. This is where we learned everything we know about playing boules.
Menton is in the very south of France, and as far east as you can go without
being in Italy, so the cuisine was based on fish, fresh vegetables, and olive oil. Salade niçoise figured greatly in our diet. On this topic, Ninetto belonged to the same school as Jacques Medecin who, after being turfed out as mayor of Nice because of (alleged) ties to organized crime, wrote a cookbook: Cuisine Niçoise: Recipes from a Mediterranean Kitchen (1972). In his very traditional view, a salade niçoise contains canned tuna (alternatively, anchovies), hard-boiled eggs, and a whole platter of raw seasonal vegetables: tomatoes, bell peppers (red or green), green onions, cucumbers, raw fava beans, and tiny raw globe artichokes, with garnishes of black olives and capers. (Just to let you know: if you use the tasteless, pitted canned California olives in this dish, Jacques and I will both curse you through three generations.)
Your traditional plate of salade niçoise arrives thoroughly doused with the best olive oil, and a lemon, quartered, to be squeezed over everything. This is a salade niçoise as offered by those who more or less invented it.
The leftovers from this feast, if there are any, are used to make pan bagnat ("wet bread"), as follows: Split a baguette or a round of French bread, remove some of the innards from the bread to make a little trough, and liberally sprinkle the cut halves with olive oil. Layer the remains of your Salade nicoise over the bread. Add more tomatoes or red pepper or tuna, if you need to (at which point you are no longer just using up leftovers, of course). Close the sandwich and weight it with a heavy pan while you refrigerate it overnight. The next day—for breakfast? For a picnic on the beach?)--cut it into serving-sized portions and eat it.
But something happened to salade niçoise on its way to North America. The history is murky. But at some point boiled new potatoes and freshly cooked green beans were added to the platter. Now, I'm not knocking this, by any means. I love the combination, even though the disgraced mayor of Nice is quite specific about those who sully the purity of the original (". . . whatever you do, if you want to be a worthy exponent of Nicois cookery, never, never, I beg you, include boiled potato or any other boiled vegetable in your salade niçoise.") That's pretty clear.
I have to admit, however, that I often make the salade niçoise with cooked potatoes and green beans, because I like it that way. It occurs to me that the original depends, for its totally satisfying deliciousness, on beautifully ripe, just-harvested tomatoes, red peppers, and so forth. And how often do you find, here, raw fava beans or tiny baby artichokes tender enough to eat raw. If you're buying your vegetables from the supermarket, and you know they've come to you over thousands of miles of Interstate highway, then you can see why perhaps the cooked potatoes and green beans began to sneak in.
You don't need a recipe for salade niçoise. I've told you the ingredients already. And even if you decide to flout tradition and use the cooked vegetables, you can make it, start to finish in less than thirty minutes.
canned tuna (oil-packed is good here)
red or green bell pepper
black olives (dry-cured are best here)
capers (rinsed briefly)
lemons, cut in quarters
fresh basil and/or parsley leaves
Scrub the potatoes and put them to cook in boiling water (I allow at least four little guys per person). Cooking will take ten to twelve minutes, depending on the size of the potatoes.
Cover the eggs (one or two per person) with cold water and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a bare simmer and set the timer for 12 minutes.
Cut off the stem ends of the green beans (i.e., "top" them) and drop them into a pot of boiling water (you can use the potato pan after removing the cooked potatoes). Allow four or five minutes for the beans (timer again) and then fish out a piece and cut a bit off to eat. I like my beans cooked, not raw in the middle. When yours are cooked just right for you, drain them and "refresh" them with cold water to stop the cooking.
While these three ingredients are cooking, quarter the tomatoes, seed the peppers and cut them in slices or one-inch squares, and open the can of tuna (one can will feed two or maybe three people). Gather basil and/or parsley from the garden.
When the eggs are done, drain them and run cold water over them for a few minutes. Then crack them all around against the edge of the sink and peel them (starting at the non-pointy end). Cut them in half.
You can make single servings of this, but it's more impressive to create a big platter. Arrange the main items to your liking, then strew capers and olives over, along with some coarse sea salt. Now generously glug olive oil over the whole thing.
At table, serve onto individual plates and give each diner a wedge or two of lemon to squeeze over everything. Eat.
It goes without saying, but I'll say it anyway: the version with the cooked vegetables doesn't lend itself as well to the pan bagnat use of leftovers. But that's okay. Just eat the leftovers, if there are any, for breakfast the next day.