How to Make the Perfect Salade Niçoise
Salade niçoise (pronounced ni-swaz) is a main dish salad that originated in Nice, France probably sometime in the late 19th century. That initial salad began as a plate of fresh tomatoes, anchovies, and olive oil—a simple meal for poor people.
In 1903, Henri Heyraud published a cookbook of French cuisine entitled “La Cuisine à Nice.” His version of the salad included the traditional tomatoes and anchovies, but added artichokes and black olives. A few years later, the famous chef Escoffier added potatoes and green beans. Former Nice mayor and cookbook author Jacques Médecin brilliantly suggested hard-cooked eggs. In my humble opinion, that is where the declaration of “what constitutes a perfect salade niçoise” should end. This is perfection.
Although no one questions the origin of the original recipe, the proper ingredients have certainly become controversial. And it seems that every person who claims to be a “chef” (yes, the quotes are appropriate in my humble opinion) has their own unique and clever spin. Among the more brow-raising concepts I found online are:
- Pierre Franey added avocado, mushrooms, and green olives.
- James Beard created a salad that included Uncle Ben’s converted rice.
- Ina Garten and Rachel Ray added salmon.
- Sara Moulton uses shrimp.
- Nigella Lawson substituted croutons for potatoes.
- Guy Fieri adds couscous.
- Mark Bittman favors faro.
- Sandra Lee used tuna steaks stuffed with olive tapenade.
Some of these might be worthy of consideration, but others are nearing sacrilege. Call me old-fashioned, but I simply don’t believe that “more is better.” The reason the classic is a classic is because it is based on simple, clean, pure ingredients; to get it right, you need to stay true to the salad’s place of birth.
The glorious photograph at the introduction to this article is by Sue, a blogger who "loves to create (and photograph) beautiful food." And she writes about her passion as well. But she devoted most of her attention to the oil-packed canned tuna and ignored the other components. Let's take a closer look at those ingredients and make a perfect salade niçoise.
- salad greens (butter lettuce)
- tomato, quartered Roma or whole grape tomatoes
- anchovy (or capers for a vegetarian option), rinsed and patted dry
- 3/4 cup olive oil, (plus 2 T shallot, 1/2 tsp. garlic, 2 tsp. Dijon, 3 T white wine vinegar, 1 T water)
- artichoke hearts, quartered
- black olives, pitted
- Yukon gold potatoes, 1 per serving (see cooking directions below)
- haricot vert, (see cooking directions below)
- medium cooked eggs, 1 per serving (see cooking directions below)
- Prepare ingredients.
- Mix ingredients or arrange attractively on plate as a "composed" salad
- Eat and enjoy!
A Closer Look at Each Component
This is not the place for spinach, arugula, romaine, or any other bitter, assertive green that would overwhelm the salad. The greens are not meant to be the star of the show; they're playing a supporting role. So, chose a simple butter lettuce with a clean delicate flavor.
The ideal tomato is either a small plum (Roma) quartered, or a scattering of brilliant red-orange grape tomatoes. Plum tomatoes are meaty and have a true "tomato" flavor. That said, it's also hard to not use grape tomatoes; they are supremely sweet, soft-skinned, and provide a sugary contrast to the vinegary dressing. Save your big slicing tomatoes for hamburgers—they are seedy and will make your salad a watery mess.
The flavor of your salade niçoise should be reminiscent of the coast of France. It needs the briny taste of anchovies. Abraham Lincoln said that all men are created equal—anchovies are not. They vary greatly in the intensity of salt and "fishiness." The people at Serious Eats did the taste testing for us; their top 10 picks are here.
My daughter is vegetarian and so I strive, whenever possible, to find meat alternatives. I am not suggesting that capers taste just like anchovies, but they do provide a pop of salty/briny flavor in contrast to the sweet tomatoes and creamy egg yolks. Rinse your capers with cool water and then blot gently to dry.
This is the easiest salad dressing you will ever make—and the tastiest. Simply place the ingredients in a small jar, screw the lid on tightly, and shake.
- 3/4 cup good quality extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 tablespoons finely minced shallot
- 1/2 teaspoon finely minced garlic
- 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
- 3 tablespoons white wine vinegar
- 1 tablespoon water
I have had relatively good luck with both frozen artichoke hearts and jarred (packed in oil or water). You won't be disappointed if you:
- avoid marinated hearts. The vinegar taste overwhelms the delicate flavor you seek in an artichoke
- purchase whole, not quartered
- look for hearts that are small—the large ones tend to have tough outer leaves
The name says it all; the best (only) black olive to use is a niçoise. They are small but have the most amazing deep, earthy flavor. Please don't use the ordinary canned black olives that are popular in Tex-Mex foods or tossed into spaghetti sauce. There is no comparison.
Yukon Gold Potatoes
Yukon golds have yellow flesh and a sweet, buttery flavor. They are typically smaller than other potato varieties; for this dish, I try to find potatoes no more than 2 inches in diameter.
How to Prepare
- Put the potatoes in a medium pot and add water to cover the potatoes by 2 inches. Season the water with salt and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer until the potatoes are tender when pierced, 10 to 12 minutes.
- The skin of Yukon golds is so thin and tender you need not remove it; however, if you wish to do so, it will slip off very easily once the potatoes are cooked.
Would a green bean by any other name taste as sweet?
Haricot vert (är-ē-kō-ˈver) is more than just a snobby way of saying "green bean." Haricots verts are longer and thinner than American green bean varieties. They are more tender (a brief touch of steam will render them perfect for your salad), but don't let their diminutive size fool you. They have a wonderful "green bean" flavor.
How to Prepare
- Bring a large pot of well-salted water to a boil over high heat. Set up a bowl of ice water for shocking.
- Add the beans to the boiling water and cook until tender but still have some bite, 5 to 7 minutes. Strain and immediately transfer the beans to the ice water. Once cool, strain and set aside until ready to use.
In most foods, you want to use the absolutely freshest product you can find. However, there is one exception: very fresh eggs are almost impossible to peel. So use the eggs you already have in your refrigerator and cook one whole egg for each serving of salad.
I have one more tip to add to the above video on how to boil eggs. Before placing those eggs in the pan, use a pin to pierce the broad end of each egg. Trust me, if you hold the egg in your other hand you can push the pin into the egg shell and it will not break. Also, the liquid egg will not leak out of the hole. It's just a pin prick. But, when the eggs are ready to be peeled you will find that the shell slips off perfectly.
Do You Like My Salade Niçoise?
© 2017 Linda Lum