Thursday, May 25, 2006

Food: Salade Niçoise

I figure the purpose of a blog is to blabber about whatever happens to be on your mind, and I find that quite often I've got food on the brain, and it just so happens that today I've got an itching to talk about one of my favorite French salads, Salade Niçoise.

This is a salad that I like to make for lunch in the springtime, when the weather is just beginning to get warmer, but not in the dead of summer, when I personally find it to be a bit too heavy. This is just a personal preference mind you. Not everyone would agree with me on that of course, since it originates from the warm sunny beach area of Nice and therefore most people would agree it's the perfect lunch for a day spent roasting yourself under the sun on the pebbly beach. But I personally prefer something even lighter in the heavy humid Parisian summer, like a simple ripe tomato (heirloom preferably) with sliced mozzarella or goat cheese, drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar and sprinkled with chopped fresh basil and coarse sea salt. An Insalata Caprese, if you will.

I've never been to Nice before so I probably haven't had the real thing, but you can find this salad pretty much in any cafe you go to in France. I look forward to it on the first sunny warm day in April after a long gray winter, when you decide it is warm enough to attempt lunch on a cafe terrace, albeit still keeping your coat on. According to this amusing article , there are so many different versions of Salade Niçoise going around, that you will rarely find two of the same. Unfortunately, I've definitely had some really atrocious versions in cafes along the Blvd St-Germain. Instead of regurgitating what the article said about the origins of the salad and the different kinds of ingredients that you can put in, I will just list what I like to put in my salade niçoise:

Lettuce: I agree with the Guardian article that while spicy and flavorful greens like roquette and mesclun are lovely, they don't belong in a salade niçoise. The salad has such strong flavors as it is, that it needs a bland lettuce. Personally, my favorite type of green to use is either butter lettuce or romaine, either green or purple, although I've been known to use mâche, (lambs lettuce) instead since we have it so often in the fridge. Iceberg would work as well, although personally I can't stand the stuff. You will be forgiven for using spinach in order to boost the vitamin intake, but I really don't think it works as well.

Tuna: I find it rather hard to find water packed tuna here in France. People here really seem to prefer tuna packed in oil. Which is good too. But I do my best to snatch up tuna packed in water whenever I can, just because that's what I grew up eating and old habits die hard. It's less fattening too. Also, that Starkist Light tuna does not exist here, it's the whole white tuna or nothing. That's ok with me too.

Beans: I always use a handful of those long French green beans, topped and tailed and boiled for a few minutes, not enough for them to lose their crispness and then blanched in ice water to stop the cooking. I've read loads of recipes that call for fava beans too. I haven't tried using those yet but I bet they are good too.

One hard boiled egg: Peeled and quartered. 'Nuff said.

Tomatoes: Very important. The ripest ones you can find. An unripe, pale pink, hard, flavorless tomato just makes me depressed. If it's too early for tomato season I use those little cherry tomatoes which are really sweet and flavorful. (There is a type of cherry tomato here called coeurs de pigeons, or "Pigeon hearts". Kind of a disturbing visual, but really sweet like candy.)

Potatoes: When I have them around and can be bothered to boil them for fifteen minutes, I use them. But I often skip them. I don't like skipping them, but I'm lazy sometimes. I've also had versions that include rice. If I have some leftover rice from the night before, I will use that. This afternoon's version will include some leftover couscous from last night's dinner. I've never tried using couscous before, nor have I ever heard of anyone using couscous, but I'm feeling a bit adventurous today.

Olives: Some say they are the most important ingredient since this is a mediterreanean salad. Purists say to only use black olives from Provence, but I have no problem using greek kalamata olives or green olives.

Anchovies: Ah yes, anchovies. Not everyone's favorite, and they can certainly be left out. I love them, but unfortunately never use them, because we never have them in the house. I think the smell would really bother Eddie. He already isn't crazy about the fact that I have canned tuna in the house.

Herbs: I will sometimes sprinkle either some basil or some tarragon on top of everything, but not both at the same time. Also some chives are nice.

Other random ingredients: If I have a cucumber around I will chop it up and put in a few slices. Same with bell peppers. Also, if I have a can of corn that is opened in the refrigerator, I will put in a spoonful. That's just my own little thing, I seriously doubt that anyone in Nice does that.
I hate raw onions, but if I liked them, I would probably decorate the salad with a few slices on top. I have heard sweet Vidalia onions are nice.

Dressing: One recipe I read claims that a true salade niçoise will have no dressing, only a drizzle of olive oil, since the tomatoes provide the acidity. I'm sorry but I really don't buy that at all. The dressing is one of the best parts and should include:

Olive oil, of course. Again, this is the mediterreanean we are talking about here.

Vinegar: Either red wine vinegar or balsamic is lovely.

A dab of spicy dijon mustard. NOT French's Mustard please! Pardon me, but do you have any Grey Poupon? At the very least use some Grey Poupon.

A clove or so of pressed garlic, mashed with salt to release the flavor.

Half of a shallot, finely minced.

Salt and pepper.

Shake it up.

Don't forget a nice crusty wedge of bread to mop up the dressing with. Yummy.

Gotta go, it's lunchtime....


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