Fresh Tuna Salade Nicoise
A Summertime Favorite for Weekday Dinner or Weekend Entertaining
- Servings: 4.
The first time I had a salade Nicoise it had been made by someone who prided herself on being a reluctant and terrible cook. Her salad certainly made her case as her salad included -- I am truly not exaggerating -- canned green beans and canned little white potatoes (both added to the salad directly out of their cans), cellophane wrapped tomatoes, dressing from a bottle, and water-packed tuna. I'm rather surprised I ever ventured to taste a salade Nicoise again after such a pitiful melange. Another time I can tell you about how this home cook roasted her chickens in paper bags.
In fact a salade Nicoise, named for the alluring and beautiful city of Nice, France, is one of France's best contributions to summer eating. It's best to serve it on a huge platter with each ingredient arranged separately. This presentation is not only quick to put together and appealing, but it also lets everyone take what they like.
There are four keys to making a good salade Nicoise. The first is to use absolutely top quality ingredients. This means tender green beans, local potatoes if you can find them, in-season tomatoes, good oily anchovies and olives, and organic eggs. Every element of the salade stands out and so every element should be first-rate.
Second, with the exception of the potatoes which you should lightly dress while still warm -- for everything else, just before serving, separately dress the green beans, tomatoes, and most of the other elements separately and lightly, instead of trying to dress everything together at the end. This way each component is correctly flavored, letting you pass a small dish of extra vinaigrette for anyone who wants more.
The third key is to buy top quality tuna steaks and only cook them to rare or medium rare, keeping the fish from drying out and becoming tasteless. Finally, the salad tastes best if each element is served at room temperature, instead of too cold.
If you prefer a more classic version of a salade Nicoise, you can always use canned tuna, which also makes a wonderful salad. But please try to get the best quality tuna, and one that has been packed in olive oil and not water (drain the oil first before adding the tuna in large flakes to the platter).
As for what you include in your salade Nicoise, classicists may disagree but I think you have some flexibility to make it your own. For example, I often add roasted artichoke hearts, or shredded red cabbage salad, or if I can find them, spears of crispy in-season little kirby cucumbers or very thin slices of red onion.
Serve the salade with a loaf of great bread and a chilled Sancerre, adding a fruit crisp or just-baked pie and ice cream for dessert to make a perfect summer meal.
- The Salad:
- 1-1/2 pounds top-quality tuna steaks, at least 1" thick
- 1 pound baby potatoes: fingerlings, Yukon Gold, red bliss or other locally farmed potatoes are best; scrubbed with the skins left on (enough to have about 2 cups of potatoes)
- 1 pound haricots verts or in-season local green beans, trimmed and washed (about 2-3 cups)
- 4 organic or farm eggs
- 2 cups baby arugula or mesclun or other young salad greens
- 2 cups shredded red cabbage (or see our recipe for Red Cabbage Salad) (optional)
- 2 large, ripe tomatoes, cored and cut into wedges or else cherry tomatoes, halved
- 1-2 cups artichoke hearts cut into large pieces (try to buy these at a good Italian deli and not use ones out of a can) (optional)
- Thin slices of red onion (optional)
- 6 to 12 oil-packed anchovies
- 1/2 cup of black Nicoise olives or oil-cured black olives
- The Vinaigrette:
- 2 oil-packed anchovies
- 3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
- 1 generous teaspoon Dijon mustard
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
- 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 4 tablespoons canola oil
- Making the Vinaigrette:
- Using a paring knife, cut the anchovies into a very fine mince and place them a medium bowl along with the vinegar and mustard. Using a fork or a whisk, combine them all together.
- Add the salt and pepper and combine.
- Slowly whisk in the olive oil and canola oil to combine.
- Taste and adjust seasoning and set aside until you're ready with the salad ingredients. Re-mix before adding to vegetables.
- Making the Salad:
- Begin by putting the scrubbed potatoes into a saucepan filled with cold water. Set the timer to 15 minutes. Put on a high heat and bring to a boil, then adjust to medium high and simmer for a total time of 15 minutes (this includes the time it took for the water and potatoes to come to a boil). When they are just tender through -- be careful you don't overcook them -- remove from the heat and drain. Transfer to a medium bowl and if not bite-sized, cut them in half and while still warm, toss with about 2 tablespoons of the vinaigrette. Set aside and let cool.
- Fill a saucepan (the one you just cooked the potatoes in is perfect) with water, add a generous pinch of salt, and bring to a boil. Add the cleaned and trimmed haricots verts and cook for about 3-4 minutes until they are just tender. Using a slotted spoon, remove the beans and immediately plunge them into a large bowl of iced water. This stops the cooking and also helps retain the bright green color. Drain completely and pat dry with paper towels. Transfer to a bowl and toss with about 1-2 tablespoons of the vinaigrette. Set aside.
- Take the red cabbage, remove any outer leaves and the core, and cut a wedge that is large enough so when shredded with produce about 3 cups of shredded cabbage. Shred the wedge either by using your food processor or by hand with a chef's knife. Place the 2 cups of shredded cabbage into a large bowl and toss with about 2 tablespoons of the vinaigrette. Set aside. (For more on making red cabbage salad, see our recipe.)
- Place the eggs in a small saucepan filled with cold water. Place on high heat and bring to a boil, turning the heat to medium high and simmering for 10 minutes. Plunge the eggs into cold water and when cool enough to handle, peel. Once the eggs are fully cooled, cut into halves. Set aside.
- Wash the baby arugula/mesclun and dry completely. Do not dress but hold aside until you're ready to assemble the salad. I recommend not dressing these greens because nearly everything else in the salad will have a little vinaigrette on it and the greens will automatically pick up any extra dressing, plus more can be added by each person.
- To cook the tuna steaks, use a hot cast iron grill pan or sauté pan (you could also broil the fish but you must watch the pieces very carefully so as to not overcook them). Place the pan on high heat and let it become blazing hot. Take the tuna steak and cut into large pieces, about 6" by 2" and rub a small amount of olive oil on each piece, enough to just slick the surface. Place the fish into the hot pan and cook about 2 minutes per side, to sear and slightly crisp each surface but leaving the interior red. Be careful not to overcook the fish.
- Remove the fish from the pan and let sit on a plate, coming to room temperature. When cool enough to handle, cut each piece on the diagonal into thick slices, to show the red interior and cooked surfaces.
- Assembling the Salad:
- Use a very large platter and begin by placing a mound of undressed arugula/mesclun in the center.
- Working around this centerpiece, arrange each ingredient in its own pile, making an attractive presentation. Take color and texture into account, placing next to one another a mound of dressed red cabbage, a pile of dressed baby potatoes, big pieces of ripe tomato wedges, a scattering of little mozzarella bocconcini, a stack of dressed haricots verts, and quarters of the hard boiled eggs placed in between each element.
- Arrange the anchovies and olives over the top of the salad.
- Gently place the pieces of pan grilled tuna on top of the center mound of salad greens.
- Let each person serve themselves from the platter and separately pass a bowl of extra vinaigrette to add as each would like.
Tip: If you want to leave out the anchovies, just do so. But anchovies are a classic Nicoise ingredient so if you leave them out of the vinaigrette, you may want to add a couple of anchovies to the platter for anyone who loves these salty little fish.
Tip: There are many kinds of anchovies to buy but for a recipe like this, ones canned in olive oil are a perfect choice. Look for the Recca brand which comes in both cans and small glass jars.