From its birthplace in the south of France to the cosmopolitan center of France, the salade niçoise can be found in just about every cheap café in the nation. The Critic loves to order it, because he knows what to expect and it mainly includes things he likes: tomatoes, potatoes, tuna, anchovies, green beans and, occasionally, overcooked rice. I'm not a huge fan for a variety of reasons: overcooked rice, canned tuna, the frequent absence of anchovies, the fact that it's on the menu in every season and every clime. Bleh. It's not that I don't like the idea; I am just so frequently disappointed in the execution. (As with many things: don't ask me about Caesar's salad in the UK unless you are ready for an hour long rant...)
What I do like about the salad, when it's properly done, is the healthiness of the ingredients that still manage to make you feel like you've had a proper meal. I also like the fact that it's not too heavy on your stomach when the weather is hot and your appetite low. And I really like sharp mustardy vinaigrette.
So I thought of this salad on my recent experiments with broad beans. I found that broad beans had a lot of the same flavour as green beans, but with a meatier texture. And they are still in season. So I picked up a couple of tuna steaks from the market and a kilo of broad beans and a few new beets because they are so pretty and taste so rich and buttery. I already had lettuce and cucumbers in the refrigerator and the only ingredient I forgot - and didn't miss, let me hasten to add - was gently steamed new potatoes. The hard-boiled eggs that traditionally adorn a salade niçoise were left of intentionally as I'm not all that keen and the Critic actively dislikes them. The rice was left out because I think it's a disgusting trick that restaurant owners use to cheaply add bulk to the salad.
And please spare me the comment from An Expert On French Food, telling me that this isn't the "real" salade niçoise. Yes, I know that. This is my take on the dish and you can love it or leave it. I love it. Olives are also traditional in a Salade Niçoise and if I had any on hand I would have included them.
Meg's Salade Niçoise
Interestingly enough, the Larousse Gastronomique does not have any reference to salade niçoise; I suppose it's a sign of its bourgeois appeal. And also interesting - to me - is the fact that Schott's Food Miscellany (a book I highly recommend if you love food and love trivia), lists broad beans as an element in the salad and green beans as a possible substitute. I have never seen broad beans served in a salade niçoise and thought I was being relatively original.
1 kilo broad beans (weight before shelling)
3-4 young beets
6-8 small new potatoes (optional)
2-3 ripe tomatoes, cut in wedges
1 spring onion, thinly sliced
1/4 a cucumber, thinly sliced
2 large handfuls of lettuce, preferably something soft and tasty or a mixture
2 tuna steaks
1/4 cup olive oil
1 Tbs red wine vinegar
1 tsp mustard
Top and tail the beets, wash them and put them in a pot of boiling water. If you are including potatoes, wash them and set them to steam. Shell the beans and put them in a pot of boiling salted water. The beets will probably be done by the time you get the beans cooking. If so, drain them and pour cool water over them. Peel the skin off and reserve once they are cool enough to handle. Check the potatoes and remove them as well, if done. Cut them in large chunks (if necessary) and reserve. Once the beans have boiled for six or seven minutes, check whether they are tender. When they are, drain and then plunge them in cold water to cool down. You have a choice at this point: if your beans are young and tender or if you like chewy beans, you can leave them as they are. If not, peel them and toss them with a tablespoon of the olive oil and one of the anchovies, chopped.
Take another tablespoon of the oil to brush the tuna steaks. Cook them on a hot grill until they are as done as you like; be aware they cook very quickly.
Start the vinaigrette by mixing the vinegar and mustard well. Then gradually add the remaining olive oil, making a smooth emulsion. Salt and pepper to taste.
Assemble the salad by arranging the lettuce on two plates and then the beets, beans, tomatoes, onion and sliced cucumber. Lay the tuna steaks in the center and drizzle half of the vinaigrette on each of the salads. Garnish with the remaining anchovies.
It's a bit of a time-consuming salad, it's true, but it really is worth it. The bold flavours work well together, salty and yet healthy, low calorie and yet filling. A perfect summer dinner.