There are a lot of fun things to do al fresco, although some things, which we might have done in our college years, may seem less appropriate now. But, who knows, after trying this salad with a cold, crisp white wine, anything could happen.
My wife has suggested that I stop daydreaming and fantasizing and get on with it.
I love salads for an al fresco lunch even though I sometimes have trouble getting motivated to do the prep work. But, I’m always always happy with the results. We’ve done a number of classic salads – Caesar Salad – the American champion, Magic Chinese Salad – an Asian great, and, most recently, the Caprese Salad – an Italian classic from the Isle of Capri, near Napoli. Today we will look at another of my favorites – the Nicoise salad, maybe the most famous “salade Française”.
This salad originated in Nice, a beautiful coastal city on the Mediterranean in southern France, known for topless beaches as well as this salad. The three key ingredients for the salad are anchovies, tuna and olives. Nice is famous for all three of these, especially Niçoise olives, a highly prized small fruity variety.
On our recent trip to rural Umbria, we made either a Caprese or Niçoise salad almost every day and enjoyed them al fresco. At first, I was a little nervous eating a French dish in Italy, but then I remembered that Nice was part of the Itailian City States for more years than it has been French.
Mediterranean Bluefin Tuna
For thousands of years, the Mediterranean has been the major spawning ground for the Atlantic Bluefin tuna. (The Gulf of Mexico is the other large spawning ground.) The Bluefin come to certain parts of the Mediterranean every spring to spawn and there is a two-month fishing season associated with that ritual. For well over three thousand years the Bluefin tuna has been in the Mediterranean diet. Preservation techniques have included smoking and salting, but for the last 150 years, canning has been the preferred method. In years past, for someone living in Nice, canned Bluefin tuna would be a logical and easily obtained ingredient, ergo, its inclusion in the Niçoise salad.
The postwar Japanese fell in love with Bluefin Tuna for sushi, and by 2012 they were consuming over 80% of the total catch according to the PEW Environment Group. The love affair has been so great that Bluefin stocks fell 60% between 1970 and 2008. Quotas have now been imposed and there has been some stabilization, but this once inexpensive and commonplace ingredient is now a luxury. The wonderful canned Mediterranean Bluefin tuna, with which most French and Italians grew up, is now a thing of the past.
The French use canned tuna packed in olive oil for the Niçoise salad, usually the albacore or yellowtail variety. If you were sitting in a waterfront bistro in Nice, your Niçoise salad would come with a high quality canned tuna, very likely from Italy. You can find such tuna in a good Italian deli, on Amazon, or possibly in a good supermarket. The best kind, is “ventresca” which means meat from the belly of the tuna – more expensive, but worth it. This is what I prefer, but, don’t let my finicky tastes stop you from making this dish – the ubiquitous oil-packed Chicken of the Sea albacore will do.
Prepping the ingredients is the major hurdle in this salad, but it goes fairly quickly if you have four saucepans, one each for the eggs, the potatoes, the green beans and the beets. Although you can substitute black olives for the Niçoise variety, try to find the real thing. Whole Foods will have Niçoise olives as will supermarkets with olive bars. Some people will object to the anchovies, so you can serve those on the side.
Hard Boiled Eggs: Get your eggs out of the fridge ahead of time and let them warm up. They will be less likely to crack. After the water has reached a rolling boil, gently put the eggs in the water using a large spoon – don’t drop them in. After 10 minutes, use the same spoon to remove them and place them in a plastic mixing bowl filled with of cold water. After about 2 minutes, gently tap and crack the shell on all sides. Start at the pointed end and peel the eggs under running water. The water will get between the shell and the egg and make things easy.
Bravado Level of Difficulty: 4.5
Time Required: 45 minutes
- 2 cloves garlic, chopped finely
- ½ tsp. sea salt
- ½ tsp. black pepper
- ⅓ cup olive oil
- 2 tbsp. fresh lemon juice
- 1 tbsp. Dijon mustard
- 1 lb. small new potatoes, peeled, sliced about ½ inch thick and boiled in salted water until tender, about 12 minutes.
- 1 can (14oz.) beets or 1 lb. of fresh beets if you are brave. If fresh, cut off stems and boil with skins intact for 35 minutes or until soft. Let cool and squeeze the inside out. The skin should come off cleanly.
- ½ lb. green beans, ideally French green beans (haricot vert), which are thinner and more tender, blanched for 5 minutes.
- 1 lb. cherry tomatoes, cut in half
- 1 cucumber, peeled and thinly sliced
- 6 radishes, sliced
- 1 head of Romaine lettuce, torn into bite size pieces
- ½ cup Niçoise olives
- 1 red onion, thinly sliced
- ½ cup basil leaves, coarsely chopped
- 8-10 anchovy filets, salt packed if possible or canned in olive oil. Wash and dry on a paper towel.
- 6 hard-boiled eggs, cut in halves or quarters
- 3 (4-oz.) cans oil-packed tuna with excess oil drained off.
1. Prep all ingredients per notes above.
2. Whisk together all of the ingredients for the dressing and set aside.
3. Use your creative artistry to arrange the salad. Usually the tuna is in the middle, the veggies around the tuna and the eggs, cut in half, around the edge. Garnish with the basil.
4. Pour the dressing over the top and serve, preferably al fresco with a bottle of crisp Italian white wine .