I’m discovering that when I think I’ll do a classic dish for the blog, something I’ve cooked many times over many years, it’s never as easy as it should be. It’s like stepping into a sea – in this case the lovely Mediterranean variety – of controversy. There you are thinking you know without question how to make a good Salade Nicoise and then, when the books come out, the revered chefs studied, confusion arises.
Now, I would have said this morning – when I said in passing to Jonathan and Lyndsey as they went off to work, I’ll make a Salade Nicoise tonight – that one essential ingredient was tuna. But then, after a fruitless search through my Elizabeth David books (she really must have a recipe for this somewhere!), I turned to Nigel Slater, culinary guru supreme and definitely to be trusted to give you the correct recipe when it comes to classic. So, imagine my surprise when Nigel tells me that in classic French cookbooks there is ‘certainly be no sign of any tuna’ (Observer 2001) and that he is unlikely to include it because ‘it tends to dominate everything else’. At this point, I turned to my trusty 1977 edition of the New Larousse Gastronomique, one of the most chosen reference books in my Chefs’ and Restaurateurs’ Top Ten Cookery Book Series. Sure enough, no tuna. Though they do, however, add potatoes which Nigel eschews.
So, what was the consensus when it came to ‘essential’ ingredients for a Salade Nicoise? It seems generally accepted that the salad should contain tomatoes, black olives, anchovies, French beans and some chopped fresh herbs like parsley, chervil, tarragon or basil. The dressing should be made with garlic, olive oil and red wine vinegar and perhaps – as I chose – contain some Dijon mustard. If lettuce is used, it should be a nice straightforward crisp one with plenty of flavour, like little gems or cos; no fancy ‘little leaf’ mixes.
The version I made tonight – which I can only claim as The Single Gourmet Traveller’s Salade Nicoise, and not necessarily a true traditional version – came down to my desire to have a good filling meal on one plate. And that meant using tuna and some potatoes. I just love that combination, especially now when I add seared fresh and meaty tuna (rather than tinned) and have some nice creamy and sweet little new potatoes to chop into the mixture. I do believe this is a time to adopt a little artistic flair and not just throw everything onto the plate but place it carefully so it looks appealing. It is, after all, French, so ‘style’ is the word. And even if what follows isn’t a true rendition of the classic Salade Nicoise, I hope you’ll nevertheless enjoy it if you follow my recipe. We certainly did. It’s definitely one of my favourite summer salads.
Salade Nicoise with Griddled Fresh Tuna Steak
The great thing is you can prepare this in advance and just cook the tuna at the last minute so it’s warm and not cold. And, to be honest, even if it was cold, as long as it’s room temperature and not fridge-cold, it’s still going to be nice.
I was cooking for three tonight but just adjust ingredients to whatever number you’re feeding. And remember all I’ve written above: the list of ingredients that follow are not mandatory; as long as you have the essential garlic, anchovies, black olives, beans (and some cooks use fresh broad beans instead of long French ones), tomatoes and herbs, and make a good Nicoise dressing, then everything else is optional.
Cook some new potatoes in their skins and allow to cool. Chop into bite-sized pieces. Top and tail some fine French beans and cook until just tender and still retaining their deep green colour; once cooked enough, put in a strainer and run under cold water to stop them cooking further and discolouring.
Boil some eggs (1 egg per person) till just past the soft stage but not hard – about 5 minutes once the water comes to the boil.
I used some marinated anchovies. This was partly because at the last minute I discovered I didn’t have a tin (which I thought was in my store cupboard), ran out and found local fishmonger open and bought these. In retrospect, I think the tinned, saltier variety would have been better and more authentic.
You’ll also want on hand a tuna steak for each person; a nice crisp lettuce like little gem or cos – break the leaves off separately and then into largish pieces; some black olives and some capers. Cut some ripe and tasty tomatoes into bite-sized pieces.
Now make a dressing. I do this very much by sense but as a rough guide, use 3 parts olive oil to 1 part red wine vinegar. Taste and check at the end: is the balance right for you? Pour some of each into a bowl. Then, with a large knife, crush 1 garlic clove with about 1 teaspoon sea salt to a paste and add to the bowl. Now chop a little shallot or spring onion very finely and add. Also add some finely chopped parsley, 1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard, freshly ground black pepper. Whisk it all to a nice smooth creamy dressing.
When you’re almost ready to eat, start assembling the ingredients on plates. Lay some lettuce leaves on the bottom of the plate. Now pieces of potato, tomato and the egg, cut into quarters. Lay some green beans across. Dot some black olives around and sprinkle over a few capers; lay some anchovies over the egg.
Heat a griddle till hot. Brush the tuna steaks with oil and season with salt and black pepper. Cook on the hot griddle till done on the outside but still pink in the middle. (Be careful not to overcook: well-done tuna is dry and unpleasant.) Lay them across the vegetables and then spoon over the dressing.
And – viola! A really wonderful dish that brings all those rich, colourful and full flavours of the south of France into your home: tasty sweet tomatoes, salty olives and anchovies, fragrant herbs and punchy garlic. And in my version, creamy little potatoes and oily rich tuna with a strong mustardy dressing matching its robust taste. It may be the wettest July known to most of us in London, but you can still bring summer into your home with recipes like this.