Let’s launch a classic Franco-American spat about exactly what is the salade nicoise, the refreshing mix of cold vegetables (and tuna?), dressed in vinaigrette, that comes from the city of Nice, on the French Riviera.
To begin at the very beginning: In Nice, writes the great food historian Waverly Root in his classic “The Food of France,” the salade nicoise “is innocent of lettuce… and must contain tomatoes, cut into wedges (not slices) … and should contain nothing cooked, with the possible exception of hard-boiled egg, not often permitted in Nice itself.”
“Outside of Nice (and as close as Paris itself), the salade nicoise often sports green beans and potatoes, both cooked,” writes Root, “though a purist would regard either of these, especially the latter, with horror.”
Other invariables, in Nice of course: black olives—the tiny, slightly bitter, brine-cured, unpitted olives called “nicoises”—sweet green pepper, fèves beans (small and lima bean-like), radishes and “pissala,” or ground anchovies. (Optional: Whole anchovies, sliced sweet onion, and whole baby artichokes, again uncooked. Everything uncooked.)
So, asks the Yank, “Where’s the tuna?” According to the American way, it ain’t a salade nicoise unless a big piece of tuna fish sits on top.
“The Nicois [a person or persons from Nice, France] often combine anchovies and tuna fish in the same salad,” allows former Nice mayor Jacques Medecin in his book “Cuisine Nicoise,” although, he adds, “traditionally this was never done, tuna fish being very expensive and reserved for special occasions, so the cheaper anchovies filled the bill.” (Root does not even mention tuna fish as a possibility.)
However, would a Nicois approve of the kind of tuna that America likes on its salade nicoise? Albacore tuna canned in spring water? Or, in a modern turn, a fillet of tuna quick-grilled and sashimi-rare?
To quote Kevin McCallister’s older sister in the original “Home Alone”: You Americans, “You are incompetents!”
No one—no one in Nice, no one in the entire country of France—would add grilled tuna to a salade nicoise. And if it’s canned tuna, it’s canned in olive oil, never water. Julia Child, at one or another past Aspen FOOD & WINE Classic, high-pitchedly warbled for all time: “Tuna in water, well, that’s simply rubbish.”
The best possible canned tuna for an American-styled salade nicoise is imported, line-caught, canned-in-olive-oil tuna. Several sold-in-USA brands exist, most from southern Italy (Sicily especially), Spain, or Portugal.
Tuna canned in olive oil flakes more easily than any grilled fillet ever could and, hence, is more readily dispersed throughout this quintessential composed salad. And the oily, full-flavored taste of tuna canned in olive oil lends so much more gusto to the salad than—let’s be frank—the veal-with-gills that’s a tuna steak.
So, when putting together your salade nicoise, use a can opener, not a Weber.
A word on wine with salade nicoise: You’ll hear, especially during the casual al fresco dining season that is summer, that, with salade nicoise, “Oh, any wine will do.” That is the same as suggesting that you can use just any golf club off the tee. Doesn’t work.
With the recipe here, for example, “any ol’ cabernet sauvignon”—even a chilled one (which would be worse, frankly)—would taste awful. (Many other reds would, too.)
The salade nicoise will appreciate alternate wines, such as lean whites or crisp rosés. They’ll taste better than reds given the recipe’s both vinegar and fish oil. Look to the salad’s origins, southern Europe, for many wines to recommend: the newest dry pinks from Provence; Spanish Rioja crianzas; Portuguese dry or off-dry whites such as Vinho Verde or from the grape loureiro. Or their New world equivalents: many a sauvignon blanc and, of course, dips into the seasonal tsunami that is dry rosé.
This is Denver chef Sean Kelly’s easy hands-on salade nicoise. He served it long ago at his restaurant, Aubergine. It serves 4.
Salade Niçoise Sean Kelly
4 Yukon Gold potatoes
4 oz green beans or haricots verts (preferred)
1 large ripe beefsteak tomato, cut into wedges
1/4 sweet red onion, cut into thin rings
1/2 cup nicoise olives, pitted if desired
12 ounces tuna, canned in olive oil
Small handful capers, preserved in salt
2 large eggs (cooked as below)
Anchovies to taste (optional)
For the vinaigrette:
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
3/4 cup very good extra virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon shallot, minced
Pinch of salt
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
Mix the vinaigrette ingredients and set aside. Prepare the vegetables: To boiling salted water add, first, the potatoes until they are cooked al dente. Remove and shock them with cold water. Set aside. Do the same with the beans. Drain both and set aside.
Wash the capers of their salt, drain and set aside. Put the eggs in a pan, add enough water to cover by 1 inch, 1/2 teaspoon of white wine vinegar and a good pinch of salt and bring to a boil. Turn off the heat and allow the eggs to remain in the pan for 7 minutes. Shock with cold water (and ice, if desired) and peel immediately. Set aside.
Assemble the salad: Arrange a bed of arugula on a large serving platter or plate. Quarter the potatoes and eggs and arrange all the other ingredients in as artful a manner as you wish.
Drizzle vinaigrette to taste over everything (saving any that you do not use for another day).
Bill St. John has written and taught about restaurants, food, cooking and wine for more than 40 years, locally for Rocky Mountain News, The Denver Post and KCNC-TV Channel 4, nationally for Chicago Tribune Newspapers and Wine & Spirits magazine. The Denver native lives in his hometown. Contact Bill at [email protected]