14 - Salad Nicoise

This basic salad Nicoise is not vegetarian. Nowadays people make it with all sorts of seared and yummy tuna--but for years we were happy as can be with this variation (again from that original Julia Child) using tuna in a can (not the tuna in olive oil that we now buy easily).

Forty years ago, when we were in Nice, the very Nice from which Nicoise hails, we ate endless variations on the theme--olives, anchovies, tomatoes, and eggs.
All sources of wonder.

In my first iterations of this, I would buy all my vegetables at the market and arrange everything in neat rows and circles. In later years, I served the salad deconstructed—was it constructed? I mean tossed in a salad bowl. Now, I think I’d revert to the original—salade compose—artfully composed on a platter.

It's obviously best when you get excellent tomatoes and string beans--but you can vary the ingredients and enjoy it in some form (especially in California) throughout the year.

And--of course--the vegetarian option is sitting right in front of you. It’s not difficult to imagine without the tuna. Large white beans might be especially good with lots of chopped parsley and basil.

Begin with a French potato salad:

Boil 4-5 medium size potatoes--Yukon gold, or other boiling potatoes until just tender. Test with a small sharp knife--should be able to pierce, but not feel mushy. If you're nervous--take one out and check out a slice. (You'll soon figure it out. If they're undercooked, they'll be hard and not quite edible--if they're over-cooked, they'll be mushy--won't hold their shape--but still edible.) Drain. As soon as you can handle them, peel and cut into ½ inch slices.

Pour 4 Tbsp. dry white wine or 2 tbsp dry white vermouth on the warm potato slices in a mixing bowl (you can replace some of the wine, with a bit of broth-but I usually don't), toss gently and let sit for a while --allowing the potatoes to absorb the liquid.

Beat 2 tbsp wine vinegar, 1 tsp. mustard, and 1/4 tsp. salt in a small bowl with a wire whisk. Slowly add 6 tbsp. olive oil, pepper and if you'd like minced garlic or shallots. Add 2-3 tbsps. chopped mixed green herbs or parsley. (Or make a variation of your favorite vinaigrette)
Toss a fair amount of lettuce (about the equivalent of one head of soft-leaf lettuce like Boston or green-leaf) with 1/4 cup of vinaigrette in a salad bowl. Scoop the potatoes atop the lettuce.

Add 3 cups cold green beans.
The question of how long the beans should be cooked is always an issue. Grandpa Dan Jacoby, noted shrimp-eating vegetarian and self-proclaimed expert on all things vegetable, grew his own string beans, cooked them until they were wan, limp shadows of their natural selves, and proclaimed them heavenly. Though I may mock his preference, I admit that I can be a partisan of certain mushy vegetables myself--most specifically those little drab olive green canned peas--also pale shadows of a fresh green pea--but perhaps because of the sugar that must have been added to the brew--I always found them scrumptious. In any case, when I started paying attention to such matters, I discovered that a quickly cooked bean cooked was far superior. For years I followed these instruction by Julia Child:

First—trim the string beans by snapping off both ends--if the beans are older and bigger--there might be a string down the middle which will pull off like a zipper when you snap off that longer tip--though it seems nowadays most beans sold are younger and zippier. In any case--once you have your beans prepared--this is what Ms. Child instructs. She is quite emphatic on the subject--and I quote:

"Whatever recipe you choose for your beans, always give them a preliminary blanching in a very large kettle of rapidly boiling salted water. Depending on what you plan to do to them later, boil them either until tender or almost tender, and drain immediately. This essential step in the French art of bean cookery always produces a fine, fresh, green bean of perfect texture and flavor.

A handful at a time, drop the beans into the rapidly boiling salted water. Bring the water back to the boil as quickly as possible and boil the beans slowly, uncovered, for 10 to 15 minutes; test the beans frequently after 8 minutes by eating one. A well cooked bean should be tender, but still retain the slightest suggestion of crunchiness Drain the beans as soon as they are done."

O.k. that is Julia Child, studied by your mother in 1969. I used this method for several years. Then, in 1973, the book, Tassajara Cooking by Ed Brown appeared. He takes a different tack (closer to my own slowly evolving Zennish cooking method). He tried to be as non-directive as possible, but this is what he says:

This way [boiling] takes care of the tougher green beans. Get them out soon enough and they'll still be bright green. Prepare the green beans. Put them in the boiling water and cook for six to eight minutes. Look sharp, unless you prefer your beans dull and mushy. Have a sample bite and take the beans off when they're still slightly chewy"

Given that most beans are smaller now--I say --toss them into boiling water--and start checking after two minutes. Experiment! Just before serving mix with some vinaigrette.

Oh--this could go on forever. My wandering eye fell on this admonition in the preface to the Julia Child green bean recipe. Be Alert!!

“The cooking itself is easy; however, beans demand attention if they are to be fresh-tasting, full of flavor, and green. Although their preliminary blanching may be taken care of hours in advance, the final touches should be done only at the last minute. It is fatal to their color, texture, and taste if they are overcooked, or if they are allowed to sit around over heat for more than a few minutes after they are ready to be eaten. [Emphasis mine]

You are forewarned.

Once you’ve figured out the bean cooking, arrange them atop the lettuce along with 3-5 quartered tomatoes, 2 or 3 quartered hard boiled eggs, 1 cup chunks of canned tuna, drained, (now I’d use that tuna in olive oil) 1/2 cup pitted good black olives, 6-12 anchovy fillets. Top it all with more vinaigrette and another smattering of minced parsley.

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