Now that the heat and humidity of summer have finally arrived, it's time to start thinking about keeping the kitchen cool. And the best way to accomplish this is to not cook. But, short of ordering in, how does one do that and still serve a delicious dinner? One way is with the French classic, salade Niçoise.
First popularized in the United States by Julia Child, salade Niçoise comes from the port city of Nice, which is on the Mediterranean, between Marseilles and Genoa, Italy. Salade Niçoise is a salade composee (composed salad), rather than a tossed salad. The difference between the two is that a composed salad is arranged on a platter or in a bowl, in order to present a more formal appearance. The method for dressing a composed salad differs from that of a tossed salad in that the components of the composed salad are dressed before the salad is put together, rather than creating the salad, then adding dressing and mixing.
Salade Niçoise is another one of those meals that will look like it took forever to make. In fact, while it will take a little bit of time, with careful planning and preparation, you should be able to put it all together in well under an hour.
The shopping list:
Bibb lettuce (also known as Boston and butter lettuce) is traditional, though the type you use is your choice, really. I prefer to use romaine, and, while I'm not an iceberg hater, I wouldn't use it here. Likewise, I wouldn't use anything at all bitter, like arugula or radicchio. They'll just clash with the flavor of the other ingredients.
Plum tomatoes such as Romas or San Marzanos. You could also use some good cherry tomatoes. Stay away from heirloom varieties and beefsteaks, as they've got too much liquid in them, which will result in a runny salad.
New potatoes, either red or white. You'll want ones that are slightly waxy, rather than starchy. Think Yukon golds, rather than Burbank russets. Go to your local green market and look for fingerlings of various sort. If you're not sure what they taste like, or how they'll cook up, tell the farmer what you want. S/he'll be able to tell you which ones to buy.
Haricots verts. While regular green beans can be used, the crispness, look, and flavor of haricots verts will make your salad shine.
Hard-boiled eggs. Buy eggs that are laid by free-range, organically raised hens. The fresher the better, and don't overcook them. See below for cooking directions.
Red bell pepper. Traditionally used raw, I prefer to roast them. See below for roasting directions.
Tuna packed in olive oil, preferably imported and jarred, not canned. Ortiz makes one of the best out there. Shop around, as prices vary from $5.99 per jar to $14.99 per. This is one item you can get cheaper in your local Whole Foods than online.
Anchovies again, packed in olive oil. Use the plain fillets, not those rolled with a caper in the middle. Buy the best quality you can. If you're fortunate enough to have a Mediterranean market nearby (Italian, Greek, Spanish, French), go there, and buy a dozen anchovies from them, rather than a tin.
Red onions and shallots. Onion for the salad, shallots for the vinaigrette.
Black olives. For god's sake, don't use canned olives. Again, if you've got a Mediterranean market nearby, they'll have olives. Niçoise olives are the best to use here (duh), but you could also use Kalamata olives.
Dijon mustard. I prefer Maille, from one of France's oldest mustard houses (they've been in business in the same location in Paris since 1747, and yes, I'll be dropping by while I'm there), but Grey Poupon will do.
First, make the vinaigrette. This is important because you'll be dressing the elements of the salad as they're prepared, not at the end. Drain the oil from the tuna and anchovies. If necessary, add good extra virgin olive oil to make about 3/4 cup, and set aside. Rub a bowl with a clove of garlic that's been sliced in half (optional). Add some finely chopped shallot, the juice of one lemon, and some freshly ground black pepper. Add some sherry vinegar or good quality red or white wine vinegar (not champagne vinegar) if desired. Add 1 tablespoon of good Dijon mustard and whisk together until well blended. While continuing to whisk, slowly add the oil in a thin stream (you're making an emulsion here). It's important to do this by hand, and not by machine. The machine will break down the shallot, and will add too much air, causing the emulsion to become too thick. Set aside. Alternatively, you can add all of your ingredients except the oil to a jar with a lid. Shake the jar to combine, then add the oil 1/3 at a time, shaking to incorporate.
In the following instructions, I say "just enough vinaigrette to coat." "What the hell does that mean," you ask. You want the vinaigrette to add flavor and tang to the ingredients, but you don't want it to overpower them or become the dominant flavor of the salad. Be judicious, and start out with less than you think it will take to coat the ingredients. You can always add more later, but once you've put in too much, it's difficult (though not impossible) to remove some. A rule of thumb is 1/2 to 1 tablespoon for the potatoes, and no more than 1/2 tablespoon for the beans and eggs.
Scrub your potatoes. Place them in a pot of lightly salted water. Bring to a boil, and let cook until tender, between 3 and 10 minutes depending on type and size of potatoes. Remove from water with slotted spoon, and place in a bowl of cold water (ice not needed here). When cool enough to handle, but not chilled through, remove from water, pat dry, and cut either in half or quarters. Place in a dry bowl, and gently mix with just enough vinaigrette to coat.
Meanwhile, boil the eggs (figure one per serving). The best method that I've found for cooking hard-boiled eggs comes from Julia Child: Place the eggs in a tall pot and cover with cold water (the water should be at least 1" over the eggs). Place over high heat, and bring to a boil. As soon as the water boils, remove the pot from the heat, and cover. Let sit for 17 minutes exactly. Remove the eggs from the water with a slotted spoon, and plunge them into a bowl of ice and water. Let sit for two minutes. Meanwhile, return the water in the pot to a boil. Place the eggs back into the water for 10 seconds. Remove eggs, and place them back into the ice and water. Let chill for 20 minutes, and peel. (Chilling the eggs initially causes the albumin to shrink slightly, and re-boiling them causes the shell to expand slightly. This makes for easier peeling.) When cooled thoroughly, peel the eggs and cut in quarters lengthwise. Place in a dry bowl, and gently mix with just enough vinaigrette to coat.
Trim the ends of the haricots verts. Bring the water you used for the potatoes back to a boil. Drop in the trimmed beans and blanch for 2 minutes (3 to 4 if using regular green beans). Remove from water and place in a bowl of water and ice to stop the cooking and set the color. Place in a bowl, and mix with just enough vinaigrette to coat.
Roast the peppers. Wash the pepper, place directly over a high flame on the stove. As the skin blackens and blisters, turn the pepper to roast all sides. When finished, transfer to a brown paper bag. Close the bag, and let sit for 15 minutes. Peel the pepper, discard seeds and veins, and slice. If you'd prefer to use them raw, you can peel them or not, but certainly remove the veins and seeds.
Quarter the plum tomatoes lengthwise. If you'd like, you can peel and seed them. To peel, cut an "X" about 1/8" deep in the stem end of the tomato. Drop into boiling water for 15 seconds. Remove from water and plunge into a bowl of ice and water. When cool, take a paring knife and remove the skin. Cut into quarters lengthwise and remove seeds.
Peel the red onion, slice through the axis, and thinly slice across the equator.
Remove the pits from the olives. To do this, place them on a cutting board, and, using the side of a chef's knife or the bottom of a small heavy saucepan, press them so that the flesh breaks and the pit is easily removed.
Clean and spin dry the lettuce. Tear into bite-sized pieces. Add the sliced red onion. Place in a bowl, and mix with just enough vinaigrette to coat.
Place the lettuce and onion onto a large platter or shallow salad bowl. To the center, add the tuna. Add half the beans to one side of the tuna, and the rest to the other side. Starting at 12:00, alternate laying out an egg, a tomato quarter, a slice of red pepper, and a couple of pieces of potato. Continue around the clock until they're all evenly distributed. Sprinkle with olives, and top each piece of egg with an anchovy fillet. You could also group the ingredients together. Again, place the tuna in the center, and then arrange all of the like ingredients around it: potatoes at 12:00, olives at 1:00, eggs at 3:00, etc. The anchovies should then be placed in "Xs" over the tuna, egg, and potatoes. Either way, remember that in a composed salad, looks matter. Make this a visual treat before it becomes a gustatory one.
Place the remaining vinaigrette into a cruet and serve on the side for diners to add more.
Serve with a loaf of crusty country-style bread and a sancerre, a sauvignon blanc, or a pinot noir.
It's not nearly as difficult or labor intensive as it sounds, and it makes for a cool, refreshing, and delicious summer dinner or lunch. I pretty much guarantee that this will be a welcome addition to your repertoire.