Salade Nicoise a la Alyce, 2009

At a time when Julia Child is all the rage again, I’ve recently read that she made the lovely French Salade Nicoise famous in America. I guess she probably did, but I have been making it since the 70’s and Julia was not my inspiration particularly, but rather James Beard. Checking through my old Beard cookbooks (I could hardly afford them at the time; you’ll see below that they were Christmas and birthday gifts.), I find his Nicoise on page 332 of JAMES BEARD’S THEORY AND PRACTICE OF GOOD COOKING. The inscription on the inside cover reads:

To Alyce
My great wife and
good cook.

Dave Christmas, 1978

You can think about that…and draw your own conclusions!!!

The recipe then held the typical ingredients of tuna, boiled eggs, fresh green beans, sliced tomatoes, anchovies and olives, but also noted optionally you might add chopped yellow onion, green pepper rings, pimento strips or canned artichokes. My pages are stuck together with vinaigrette splatters from 1978 when no one else I knew was making vinaigrette. I’m sure there were people somewhere splashing around in hard-to-find olive oil, but I didn’t know them. I had not been to Europe yet and didn’t even know the best places for olive oil production.

Didn’t have Olio Santo back then. Not at my house anyway!

In America, well, the United States, anyway, most salad dressing, at that time, came in bottles or from paper packets that were mixed with oil, vinegar and water in your own pre-marked bottles. My own mother made some dressings as I was growing up, but “oil and vinegar” or dressed-up mayonnaise was more likely. Vinegar alone was also one of her trademarks, particularly for sliced cucumbers with onions and green peppers.

My sister would come to visit after I married and I can see her out on my back deck under a huge tree that shaded the table. She adored (still does) tuna and was enamored of Tuna Nicoise, made with canned tuna because, frankly, in the Washington, D.C. area where we were stationed, fresh tuna was unheard of. ( And, to be fair, I’ve had the dish in Nice a couple of years ago now (with said sister, even) and it was served with canned fish. ) Perhaps fresh tuna was unheard of for my budget and in my neighborhood, but really I never saw any that I can remember. The salad became a topic of conversation for her; it popped up again and again as years went by and I moved to 23 other places, “Remember that Nicoise you made in Virginia?” If I called her right now, she might make reference to it were the occasion to arise for a discussion of cooking, tuna, great summer salads, etc.

My husband was fascinated by both the name and the dish. Speaking some French when I had only Spanish, he liked to lord the language over me once in a while, or use it at very opportune moments (it worked). So he liked saying the name “Nicoise” and he certainly liked eating it. It became our quintessential summer meal when tomatoes were at their best and it was just too hot to cook. Did either of us really put together why it was “Nicoise?” I don’t know. I knew I couldn’t find Nicoise olives (still hard to find; they keep most of them for themselves) and probably used black olives. Kalamatas weren’t a mainstay on the shelf then either.

Dave’s great grilled garlic toast; those Texans would have given anything for it.

In Nice, on our most recent trip, we arrived one hot noon at a family-style table in a tiny, but exhaustedly busy restaurant at the top of a hill. We sat, at a large table for this place and, of course shared it with another group. It was that or wait an hour. Our tablemates were a fine family from Texas: petite Mom, tall and big Dad with their two strapping (football player?) sons. Pitchers of wine on the table confused them; they wanted iced tea. Well, there was none, of course. Even water, when asked for, arrived barely chilled and in small bottles at that. No ugly Americans here, they merely pressed their lips together tightly and squinted a bit over how little there was to drink, but gamely tried the cool wine. Mom smiled; the trip was her idea of a 25th wedding anniversary gift. When Salade Nicoise (exquisitely prepared and presented, though in small portions on sweet eight-inch plates) appeared, their eyes grew large and soon after the brows furrowed. Was this all there was for lunch? You’ve got to be kidding. (Nothing mentioned out loud.) The men did their best to balance themselves on the tiny, wooden café chairs and ploughed through the Nicoise in, oh, two minutes. More bread, maybe? Butter??? How hungry they were; how hungry they were to remain. Or so they thought.

Once the salad plates were removed (I was full!), the family began to get up to leave. (Maybe there’s ice cream somewhere?) At that moment, the waitress arrived with huge platters of roasted chicken, buttered new potatoes and piles of sautéed carrots cut on the bias in large chunks. Nicoise can be a delicious first course in that part of France and so it was there. Gingerly, but with great anticipation, they sat back down, remembering the too-small chairs, to eat a “real” meal. Now this was more like it; we knew the French knew how to cook. Oh, for goodness sake, that was just the SALAD!!! Soon, big pitchers of RED wine appeared, and as it flowed and more chicken arrived, the wrinkled brows turned to huge, toothy smiles and nodding heads. Yes, this was why we came all this way. Well, Mom, perhaps you were right after all. Except for the sweet tea that should have accompanied this meal.

Make these early in the day or the night before……

Of course, for me, to have Salad Nicoise in Nice was all I needed to complete my cooking life!!! I was in heaven, though I, too tucked into the roasted chicken, fragrant with tarragon and basted in wine and butter. My sister thought my Nicoise was better and, while it was the memory that was better truly, she made me feel like a famous chef. She has done that my whole life….and continues to do so.

Here’s my current version, made recently to celebrate the last gasp of summer, eaten outdoors in the dark. (Grilled in the dark by my darling man.) This week held snow and freezing 40 degree temps here, but last weekend was lovely for cooking outdoors. Life has moved on; fresh Ahi Tuna is now available ($21.99 a pound) and I splurged. If you are unmotivated to spend $21.99 a pound for anything, think how many times you’ve paid more than that for a mediocre restaurant meal and then head for the fishmonger or butcher.

Salade Nicoise a la Alyce, 2009

serves 2

2 pieces Ahi Tuna, 6-8oz ea
4t olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly-ground pepper

½ # fresh green beans with sliced onions, cooked al dente
2 sliced fresh tomatoes
2 boiled eggs, sliced thinly
2 medium red potatoes, boiled, cooled and sliced
12 anchovies
1 bunch frisee, divided (or any other greens you like)
½ c Nicoise or Nicoise-like olives (can sub Kalamata)
1 lemon
Salt and pepper

Dressing: 1T Dijon mustard, 1 medium minced shallot, 1T Sherry vinegar, 4 T best quality extra-virgin olive oil, ½ t kosher salt, ¼ t freshly-ground pepper. (Whisk together all but oil, then whisk rapidly as you slowly pour oil into the mixture. Taste and adjust seasonings.)

Grilling the tuna: Oil and salt/pepper the tuna. Grill over medium heat about 3 minutes per side until pink at center. Cook more or less according to your liking, but don’t overcook the tuna so it looks like pork tenderloin. If you like the ultimate rare ahi, go for it. This is the place!

To serve the salad, on each plate place separately (and artfully!) tomato, potato, olives, green beans, boiled egg, anchovies and some greens as tuna is grilled. When the tuna is done, add it to the plate. Squeeze lemon over all and salt and pepper entire plate. Drizzle with dressing and pass extra dressing at table if needed.

Accompaniment: Grilled olive oiled garlic French bread slices. (Grate garlic into a pool of olive oil on a large plate. Salt and pepper oil. Brush garlicky oil onto bread and grill briefly until crisp.)

Wine: Sancerre is my favorite. Any French white would suffice.

Dessert: Rocky Ford cantaloupe, what else? Colorado has a few claims to fame food-wise (Lamb comes to mind, though we export most of it.), and this cantaloupe is divine. Add chopped proscuitto if you must. Mint is better.

Sing a new song, recreate a favorite dish; share all of it——————

Family Last Weekend–Great Grilling Weather!

Britta attempting the Bach with pianodog helping

that’s all, folks

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