- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 15, 2006

“Give me a rundown on salade Nicoise,” said my editor. Easy, I thought.We’re all familiar with that colorful, savory summer favorite from the French Riviera. It consists of green beans and potato tossed in vinaigrette dressing, topped with flaked tuna and black olives and decorated with quartered tomato and hard cooked eggs. Right? Wrong.

Salade Nicoise turns out to be one of the whodunits of the culinary world. No one has the definitive recipe, nor has its inventor been identified. I began digging around in my library, where I came across a recipe for “the real” salade Nicoise in a book by a former mayor of Nice, Jacques Medecin.

He was very worked up about what he called “crimes” committed against the true salade Nicoise. Tuna is not traditional, he said, because it was too expensive; locals traditionally used anchovies alone. Potatoes or any other boiled vegetables added to the salad are an abomination, and he insisted that all vegetables in salade Nicoise must be raw.

As I read down the list of suggested ingredients in his recipe — green peppers, fava beans, baby artichokes and onions — it was my turn to bristle.

I’ve always known the Provencaux to get riled up about their beloved fish stew, bouillabaisse, but this was the first I’d heard of the arguments surrounding salade Nicoise. I plucked another book from the shelf by a more modern Provencal author.

“There is only one classic Salade Nicoise and its ingredients are listed below,” she said with assurance. Included among them were fennel, radishes and strips of garlic-rubbed stale bread. No tuna here, either, I noted, although there was everything else, including a suggestion to replace the “traditional” basil with mint, if you wanted. Yet for me, parsley would be the only permissible herb.

I have walls of books on French food and on Provencal cooking in French and English, but the mad search that followed those two discoveries turned up few further references to salade Nicoise, except in “Ma Cuisine” by Escoffier, the great 20th-century chef.

Escoffier was raised near Nice, so his recipe should be definitive. Just two lines long, it calls only for tuna packed in oil, tomato flesh, diced anchovy filets, and a tarragon, chervil and chive vinaigrette with olive oil.

The encyclopedic “Larousse Gastronomique” includes celery and lettuce but no tuna. Lettuce? In a salad that may be dressed and left to stand an hour or two? Escoffier would turn over in his grave.

When I was running LaVarenne Cooking School in Paris in the 1980s, I used to escape to one of the nearby cafes for a quiet lunch. It was never a gourmet event: Unlike bistros, cafes offer little in the way of hot food, and sometimes none at all.

Commonly on the menu are baguette sandwiches filled with ham or cheese, or a croque monsieur, which is a grilled version of the same, only on plain loaf bread.

I always ordered the Nicoise, nearly the only salad on the menu. It consisted of canned tuna, crisp green beans, chopped tomato, tender baby potatoes, a whiff of anchovy and a sliced hard-cooked egg. I always assumed that was the standard recipe, the salade Nicoise that surely every home cook in Provence had engraved on her brain. Apparently not.

Having sat through the bouillabaisse debate many times, I know to keep out of it when it comes to discussing the authenticity of regional dishes with locals.

For anyone who is brave enough to dive into the argument, here’s a starting recipe for salade Nicoise. Tomatoes are the main ingredient. Hard-cooked egg and anchovies are entirely correct. Salt and olive oil are above reproach in the seasonings department. As for the black olives, basil, mint, tuna, vinegar, potatoes, artichokes, onions, green bell peppers, lima beans, cucumber, radishes, garlic or garlic-rubbed croutons, celery, green beans, tarragon, chervil, chives, mustard … you’re on your own.

Salade Nicoise

Early versions of salade Nicoise were almost vegetarian, definitely an appetizer to tease the palate. By the 1950s, tuna had entered the picture, and now the salad is invariably served in main-dish portions.

Herb vinaigrette (recipe follows)

2 pounds waxy potatoes, unpeeled

Water

Salt

1 pound green beans, trimmed

6 hard-cooked eggs

6 medium tomatoes (about 1 pound total), peeled

2 cans (6½ ounces each) tuna in olive oil

12 anchovy fillets, halved lengthwise

3/4 cup (6 ounces) salted (dry-cured) black Nicoise olives

Make the herb vinaigrette and set aside. Put potatoes in a large pan of cold salted water, cutting large ones in 2 to 3 pieces so they cook evenly.

Cover, bring to a boil and simmer until just tender when pierced with the tip of a knife, 15 to 20 minutes.

Drain potatoes and let cool slightly. Peel them and cut in chunks, letting them fall into a bowl. Mix in 4 to 5 tablespoons of dressing (which has been re-whisked) and set aside to cool.

Meanwhile, bring a large pan of salted water to a boil. Add beans and boil until tender but still firm, 5 to 10 minutes depending on their size. Drain and rinse them with cold water to set color. Drain thoroughly and toss beans in a bowl with 3 to 4 tablespoons dressing. Taste and adjust seasoning.

Cut hard-cooked eggs lengthwise in quarters; core and cut tomatoes in eighths. Put tuna in a small bowl, pull into large flakes with two forks, stir in 3 to 4 tablespoons dressing.

Taste and adjust seasonings. Ingredients can be prepared up to 2 hours ahead and kept at room temperature but the salad is best assembled not more than a few minutes before serving.

To finish, taste potatoes, adding more dressing, salt or pepper, if needed. Spread them in a large shallow serving bowl with green beans on top.

Pile tuna in center and arrange egg and tomato quarters around the edge. Top beans with a lattice of anchovy fillets and scatter olives on top. Spoon any remaining dressing over and serve.

Makes 6 servings as a main course.

HERB VINAIGRETTE

1/4 cup red wine vinegar

2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

Salt and pepper

3/4 cup olive oil

1 tablespoon chopped fresh tarragon

2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

Whisk vinegar with garlic, mustard, and salt and pepper to taste in a large bowl until salt dissolves.

Gradually add oil, whisking constantly so the dressing emulsifies and thickens slightly. Whisk in tarragon and parsley, taste and adjust seasoning.

TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES

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