All winter long, I’d been percolating the possibility of getting myself to the South of France to visit a friend, who said a warm bed and cold rosé await. Then COVID hit, and with it any notion of a cross Atlantic journey. I’m coming to terms with the fact that the only travel I’ll be doing this summer will adventures in the kitchen. In lieu of meals under the Provencal sun, it will be a Make-Your-Own Nicoise Salad Bar in the comfort of my own backyard, no plane ticket required.
What is Nicoise Salad?
Salade Nicoise, as it’s known in its home country, is a bistro menu standard that originated in the city of Nice, in the southeast corner of France. There is some debate over the classic elements of the salad and whether it should be served tossed or composed. I’ve heard the traditional version is done entirely with raw vegetables, though I happen to like tender cooked potatoes and green beans in mine.
What Kind of Tuna?
Anchovies are apparently the original fish in this salad, though these days you’ll more often find tuna as the protein on the plate. You might be surprised to know that canned, not fresh tuna, is the norm, which makes it more economical, not to mention a little easier on the cook. I prefer tuna canned in olive oil rather than packed in water for a Nicoise Salad, such as the Wild Planet and Genova brands. Keep it simple by opening the cans and plunking them down on the platter or serving board with a fork alongside. One less serving dish to clean.
Don’t be Afraid of Anchovies
As a nod to the original iteration of the salad, I like to whisk anchovies into the dressing. If you’re not a huge fan of these little fish, consider making the dressing with just one anchovy and build from there. Yes, they are salty and “fishy”, but they also pack loads of flavor. That said, I won’t judge you for leaving them out entirely if anchovies just aren’t your thing.
Scale it Up or Down
To me, a Nicoise Salad arranged on a platter is perfect for gatherings of any size. It’s routinely on the lunch rotation when we have family get togethers during the summertime. As such, know that you can scale this salad bar to suit your crowd. It’s also very flexible in terms of ingredients. Swap in cherry tomatoes if you can get good ones. Use any kind of olives you like. Add radishes and take away green beans if you prefer. I also wouldn’t say no to marinated artichoke hearts or thinly sliced fennel, though don’t tell your Francophile friends.
For other salad recipe inspiration you might like:
Make-Your-Own Nicoise Salad Bar
A simple salad bar using the traditional Nicoise for inspiration is an easy way to make meals, particularly during the summer. Feel free to scale the recipe up or down depending on how many are at your table.
- 1 small clove garlic
- 2 anchovies
- 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
- 1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh tarragon
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 1 pound small, waxy potatoes, such as red-skinned or fingerlings
- 1/2 pound green beans, stem ends trimmed
- 4 eggs
- 1 head butter lettuce or 2 heads Little Gem lettuce, washed and dried
- 2 medium tomatoes, cut into wedges
- 2 five-ounce cans tuna, preferably packed in olive oil
- 1/4 cup Nicoise or other favorite olives
- Salt and fresh black pepper
Make the dressing by pounding the garlic and anchovies in a mortar and pestle or mincing on a cutting board. Transfer to a small bowl and add the Dijon, lemon juice, and vinegar. Whisk well. Drizzle in the olive oil while whisking until blended. Whisk in the tarragon as well as freshly ground black pepper to taste.
Put the potatoes into a medium pot, cover generously with water, and add a few teaspoons of salt. Bring to a boil until tender enough to easily cut in half. Use a slotted spoon to scoop potatoes from the pot, set aside, and cut in half when cool enough to touch.
Bring the water back to a boil, add the green beans, and blanch just until barely tender (the time will vary, but figure roughly 2 minutes). Empty into a colander in the sink and rinse with cold water. If you care about preserving the bright color of the beans, dump them into a bowl of ice water for 1 minute, then drain again.
Hard boil the eggs by putting them in a small pot covered by 1 inch with water. Bring to a boil, remove from heat, and leave for 12 minutes. Put the eggs under running water until cool enough to peel and slice in half.
Arrange the potatoes, green beans, eggs, lettuce, tomatoes, tuna, and olives on a large platter. Lightly season the eggs, potatoes, and green beans with salt and pepper. Set the platter in the middle of the table with dressing on the side, and let everyone assemble their own salad. You may have leftover dressing, which will be good for another few days, stashed in the fridge.