Salade Niçoise

I have been preparing Salade Niçoise for over twenty-five years, which roughly parallels its popularity in Britain and my career in Soho. The Soho link has always been strong with this particular dish, simply because three vital ingredients have always been available there. They are: dry salted anchovies, dry salted capers and, most importantly, good-quality tinned tuna. Large tins of tuna steak packed in olive oil, often with a re-sealable lid, are the norm in Italy or Spain. Their quality is about as far above the usual dolphin-lethal, soy-oil-saturated Pacific tuna tins as is imaginable. I also happen to deplore the current fashion for seared fresh tuna in Salade Niçoise, tinned is the stuff for me.

What precisely goes into this mainstay, southern French dish is subject to considerable debate. Larousse Gastronomique includes tomatoes, fresh broad beans, baby artichokes, green peppers, hard-boiled eggs, anchovies, tuna, black olives, garlic and basil. Jacques Médécin, the spectacularly corrupt ex-mayor of Nice, is characteristically dogmatic in his authoritative Cuisine Niçoise, adding celery and cucumber to the above list, but both are very firm about leaving out all cooked vegetables, including potatoes and French beans. Simon Hopkinson can always be relied on to provide an opinion on classic French dishes, and he includes capers but firmly evicts the tuna. My version contains tuna, anchovies, capers, new potatoes, tomatoes, red onion, Little Gem lettuce, eggs, French beans, black olives and, if available, a few crisp celery leaves, but only the pale inner ones.

Most of the recipes in this book list the ingredients with their basic preparation done. Here I am going to go into more detail, particularly with the eggs, beans and potatoes, because the precise methods of preparing them are important. Judging from my experience as a cookery teacher, these apparently simple processes are the ones that people either get wrong or are generally uneasy about. So I hope you will bear with me if this recipe seems interminable.

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Ingredients

  • 250 g good-quality tinned tuna in olive oil
  • 12 dry salted anchovies
  • 1 tbsp dry salted capers
  • 200 g new potatoes (Jersey Royals are in season at the same time as leafy celery)
  • salt and pepper
  • 6 medium eggs
  • 200 g French beans, topped and tailed
  • 1 red onion
  • 4 ripe plum or vine tomatoes
  • 2 Little Gem lettuces
  • a handful of fresh celery leaves
  • a handful of good black olives
  • good-quality olive oil

Dressing

  • 1 medium egg
  • ½ tsp English mustard powder
  • juice of 1 lemon
  • a small handful of parsley leaves
  • ½ tbsp tomato ketchup
  • 25 g normal tinned anchovies in olive oil
  • 300 ml olive oil

Method

Making the Dressing

Put all the dressing ingredients except the oil in a food processor and whizz until smooth. With the machine still running, slowly pour in the oil in a steady stream until the dressing starts to thicken. You may need a little more oil than the 300 ml listed. Taste the mixture, it may need salt and possibly a drop of lemon juice. There will be rather a lot of this dressing, much more than will be needed for the salad, but don’t worry: it keeps well in the fridge, makes an excellent crudité dip and, heretically, is very good on Caesar salad.

Preparing the Salad

Rinse the anchovies in cold water for about an hour, then pull the fillets away from the bones. This is much easier than it sounds. Rinse the capers for about the same time as the anchovies. Drain and dry the anchovies and capers well.

Scrub the potatoes thoroughly until nearly peeled, rinse then cover with a copious quantity of cold water, add salt and bring to the boil. Continue boiling for a further 5 minutes, switch off and allow to cool completely in their cooking water. Providing the potatoes are small, they will be perfectly cooked by the time the water is cold.

Put 2 litres water on to boil, and get the eggs out of the fridge. When the water is boiling merrily, carefully lower the eggs into it and cook for exactly 6 minutes. Remove from the water with a slotted spoon and immerse in cold water for 4 minutes. Remove from the water, shell them and keep in fresh cold water until needed.

Add some salt to the egg water and return it to the boil. Drop the beans in for 3 minutes or so. The beans must be fully cooked, I hate squeaky, undercooked French beans. Drain the beans and refresh in a bowl of cold water, then drain thoroughly.

Peel and chop the onion into rings. Quarter the tomatoes and season them. Quarter the lettuce lengthways: do this at the last possible moment or the leaves will turn brown. Flake up the tuna. Slice the potatoes and cut the eggs in half.

Assembling the Salad and Serving

Put the tuna, lettuce, celery leaves, beans, potatoes and capers in a large bowl with 6 tsp of the dressing then toss lightly. Arrange the eggs, olives, anchovies, onion rings and tomatoes on top then drizzle with good fruity olive oil.

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