Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Niçoise Salad

The nice weather is sticking around, and so is my insatiable appetite for fresh stuff! At the risk of being redundant, here is another salad recipe, but this one is way more bulky: a real meal-salad, the famous Niçoise! My coworker mentioned making some last week, and I have been craving it ever since. The Niçoise is a salad that became strangely fashionable in recent years, which amuses me very much, as it was originally meant as a cheap, filling salad. Just like when jeans (which used to be a strictly lower-class garments) ascended to haute couture, the working-class meal transcended to fine cuisine!

The recipe was first introduced to North America by none other than Julia Child, and some of the ingredients are still hotly debated by purists, particularly in the Nice region, where they don't like the addition of steamed potatoes (as this salad originally contained no cooked vegetables of any kind). Personally, it reminds me very much of puttanesca sauce, because a lot of the ingredients are preserves. In fashionable restaurants, the canned tuna is often replaced with fresh pan-seared tuna. Though very elegant, this luxurious twist on the original recipe seems a bit odd to me, as a salad made mostly of preserves ought to be a fairly inexpensive, yet elegant and nourishing meal. If you have the budget to afford fresh tuna, feel free to indulge, but there is nothing wrong with the canned stuff (as long as it's dolphin-safe, of course!).

A word about hard-boiled eggs: I know it can seem a bit scary if you've never hard-boiled an egg before. How do you know it's done? That's when a kitchen timer comes in very handy, because there are no external signs that the egg is done. Get a small sauce pan, fill it halfway with water, add a pinch of salt (this helps prevent the egg from cracking) and bring to a boil. When the water is boiling, dip your egg in the water with a spoon a couple of times (again, to prevent the abrupt temperature change-related cracks), then lower the egg so it is submerged. You may have to experiment a bit, but the general rule of thumb is that it takes 10 minutes to hard-boil a large egg. Take it out of the saucepan with a spoon, and when it's cool enough to handle, gently knock it with the back of that same spoon until the shell cracks, and peel it off.

Kill two birds with one stone and marathon-steam your potatoes and green beans! Get your steaming apparatus ready and steam the potatoes for 10 to 15 minutes (depending on the size), until they are easily pierced with a fork. Add the beans to the steamer and steam for 2 minutes, until they are bright green. Fill a bowl halfway with ice water while everything steams. As soon as the veggies are done, transfer them to the ice water bowl and let them cool while you get everything else ready.

Yes, I know, it's an awful lot of prep for a salad. But trust me, it's worth all the fussing!

Older recipes for Niçoise salad contain raw red bell pepper and anchovies, two things that I am not especially fond of even if they are prevalent in southern French cuisine, so my version omits them (I decided to replace anchovies with artichoke hearts), but I kept the spirit of the salad alive with tuna, green beans and black olives. At the risk of shocking purists, I decided to add some steamed baby potatoes. Just because I love potatoes.

8 cups Romaine lettuce, washed, drained and dried, chopped
12 cherry tomatoes, halved
1/2 pound green beans, steamed, stalks trimmed
1/2 pound red-skin baby potatoes, steamed and quartered
3 hard boiled eggs, sliced
1/2 cup Niçoise or Kalamata olives
1 can flaked white tuna, drained
1 can artichoke hearts, drained and quartered
Chopped parsley, for garnish

In French cuisine, presentation is almost as important as composition, and Niçoise is no exception. Of course, you can toss everything together in a big bowl (it's what I do most of the time if I am not entertaining), but to create an traditionally elegant plate like what you'd be served if you wandered in a fancy café, here is what you do! Create a bed of lettuce in 4 serving plates. Then divide the tomatoes, potatoes, eggs, artichoke and green beans between the plates, keeping the ingredients together (e.g. a small pile of tomatoes, a small pile of potatoes, etc.), scoop some tuna in the middle of the place and sprinkle with black olives. Sprinkle with the parsley and serve the dressing on the side so your guests can add it to their taste.

Obviously, it's not a vegetarian-friendly salad, but there is a vegan version "Appetite for Reduction" which, although highly inauthentic, makes a very decent substitution for veg-heads, or for people like my boyfriend, who simply don't like canned tuna. It's also a lighter version, because as yummy as it is, classic Niçoise salad is not exactly diet food. Try the following version if you are watching your waistline:

1 (16 ounce) can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
2 tablespoons capers
1/2 pound baby red potatoes, steamed
1/2 pound green beans, stalks trimmed, steamed
1/2 small red onion, cut into thin strips
1/3 cup of Niçoise or Kalamata olives
8 cups chopped red leaf lettuce
1 cup cherry tomatoes
Fresh parsley and chopped chives, for garnish

Place the chickpeas in a mixing bowl, and mash them with a fork or small potato masher. There should be no whole chickpeas left, but it shouldn't be completely smooth either. Add the capers and 2 tablespoons of whichever dressing you decided to use (dressing recipes are just below). Mix well and set aside. Place the lettuce in wide bowls or plates. Place a handful each of potatoes and green beans in piles on the lettuce, along with a wedge of sliced onion and a handful of tomatoes. Place a scoop of the chickpea mixture in the center and top with the olives. Garnish with fresh herbs and serve the dressing on the side.

You could also use a ripe avocado, thinly sliced, to replace the eggs, instead of the red onion.

Here are a few great dressings that go well with this French classic. There require the use of a food processor; when I make dressings, I like to use the blender attachment of my little Cusinart Smart Stick immersion blender. That gizmo was worth every penny!

This one is from Nadia G.'s "Cookin' for Trouble", and I have to confess that it's my one of my favorite salad dressings. Ever. It's sweet, with just enough tang from the garlic and mustard, and if you use walnut oil, the nutty finish is to die for:

2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons honey
2 garlic cloves
1/3 cup cider vinegar
2/3 cup walnut (or olive) oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper

Combine the ingredients in a food processor and blend until smooth, thick and emulsified.

The following two are from the aforementioned "Appetite for Reduction".

Balsamic Vinaigrette:
1/4 cup cashews
2 tablespoons scallions, chopped
1/2 cup water
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon agave nectar
3/4 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Put the cashews in a food processor and pulse. Add the rest of the ingredients and blend for at least 5 minutes, using a rubber spatula to scrape down the sides often, until completely smooth. Transfer to a sealable container and refrigerate until ready to use.

Green Goddess Garlic Dressing:
2 to 3 garlic cloves, peeled
1/2 cup fresh chives
1/2 cup fresh parsley
2 tablespoons tahini
2 tablespoons nutritional yeast
1 tablespoon miso
1/3 cup water
2 tablespoons fresh squeezed lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon salt

Pulse the garlic, chives and parsley in a food processor until chopped up. Add the remaining ingredients and blend until smooth. Use a rubber spatula to scrape down the sides a few times. Transfer to a sealable container and refrigerate until ready to use. It will thicken a bit when chilled, so don't be temped to thin it with more water!

Whichever version you decided to make, Niçoise is really a full meal of a salad, and is a perfect lunch or light summer dinner. A crisp, slightly sweet white wine or rosé is de rigueur here; C'est La Vie would be my pick.

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