Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Salad Days

Nicoise Salad on a summer evening.
A crisp white rhone was the perfect pairing.
Craig did a GREAT job grilling the tuna!
If you grew up in the sixties or seventies the term “salad,” more often than not, meant a bowl of soggy iceberg lettuce garnished with some pink tomatoes, swimming in some creamy pink or acidic “Italian” bottled dressing.

Even today, many restaurants still serve a version of this as a “side salad” with a few stale croutons on top. Luckily our salad horizons have been broadened.

There are two basic types of salad: simple and composed.

Simple salads include anything where the ingredients are tossed together. Greek salads with beets, olives and tangy feta; fattoush salad, the middle-eastern mixture of cucumbers, onions, parsley, tomatoes and toasted pita in a tart, minty dressing; spicy Thai salads of chicken, cashews and apples, and the new classic “Michigan salad” of baby greens, apples, walnuts and blue cheese. And of course, the ubiquitous (but usually poorly prepared) Caesar. The possibilities are endless.

The composed salad—a salade composée—is a salad in which an assortment of ingredients are arranged artfully on a plate and drizzled with dressing, usually a vinaigrette. Quite often these salads are intended to be the main course, rather than a side dish or first course. A well-composed salad should have a balance of colors, flavors and textures, and even temperatures (cool veggies and warm meats). Your imagination is the only limit.

The Cobb Salad, a ridiculously fattening combination of blue cheese, chicken, bacon, avocado and egg (oh, sure, there’s lettuce underneath, but what’s the point, really?), became popular in the eighties and is a modern version of a composed salad.

But by far the most famous and classic composed salad is “salade niçoise”, a specialty of Nice, France that made all over the world today. Traditional ingredients should include crisp haricot verts, hard-boiled eggs, anchovies, potatoes and tuna, but to say that chefs have taken some license with the ingredients would be an understatement.

Call me “old school”, but I love a classic nicoise a la Julia Child, the doyenne of French cooking. Her recipe is complicated but simple, and a timeless classic, like the lady herself. I do deviate from Julia’s classic in one way, though; by using seared ahi tuna instead of canned. But it’s tasty either way.

Presentation is everything with this salad. Think of the plate as an artist's palate when you arrange the various colors and textures.

Hubby (“The Grillmaster”) did a great job searing the tuna this time. We ate “al fresco” on a beautiful summer evening with a crisp white Cotes du Rhone.

Don’t let the lengthy instructions deter you from making this salad. It’s a perfect summer dinner or patio lunch and worth the time and effort when summer’s bounty of tomatoes, green beans and lettuce make this salad really sing.

• 6 eggs, hard boiled and peeled
• 6 to 8 red-skinned or yukon gold potatoes, of a uniform, medium size (2-inch diameter)
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• 1 pound very fresh, crisp, young, string-less green beans, blanched and chilled
• 2 tablespoons salt
• 1 tablespoon finely minced shallots or scallions
• 1/3 cup dry white wine
• 1/3 cup cold water
• Salt and freshly ground black pepper
• 3 to 4 tablespoons excellent olive oil
• 1 large head Boston lettuce
• Oil and Lemon Dressing , recipe follows
• 3 to 4 ripe red tomatoes quartered through the stem or 12 to 16 ripe full-flavored cherry tomatoes halved through the stem
• 1 (2-ounce) can or bottle anchovy fillets packed in olive oil
• 1 (8-ounce) can oil-packed chunk white tuna, drained
• Fresh lemon juice
• 1 cup good mayonnaise
• 2 tablespoons capers (fine fat ones if possible)
• 1/2 cup small Italian or French black olives, pits in, and packed in brine
• Fresh parsley sprigs


Scrub the potatoes under running water with a vegetable brush, and place in a steamer basket over a saucepan containing 2 inches of water. Bring to the boil, lower heat to moderate, cover closely, and steam about 20 minutes or until cooked through?be sure they are really cooked through, cut one in half and taste carefully. Peel while still hot, halve them, cut into slices 1/4-inch thick.
n a 2-quart bowl, combine salt, shallots, wine, and water. Lift the potatoes gently into a the 2-quart bowl. Using a bulb baster, so as not to break the slices, baste the potatoes with the liquid. Taste for seasoning adding more salt, if needed, grinds of pepper, and several spoonfuls of the olive oil. Baste several times as the potatoes cool.

Shortly before serving so that all elements will remain at their freshest, toss the lettuce leaves in a large bowl with just enough dressing to coat them. Taste the potatoes, adding a little more seasoning if necessary. Halve the eggs. Toss the green beans with a spoonful of the dressing. Lightly salt the cut surfaces of the tomatoes and dribble over a little dressing. Open and drain the anchovies, separating them with a form. Drain the canned tuna, flake gently, and season with lemon juice and pepper. Arrange the largest lettuce leaves nicely around the sides of the serving bowl or platter, and make a bed of the remaining leaves in the center, where you will pile the potatoes. Place the egg yolks against the lower part of the potatoes, spoon a dollop of mayonnaise over each yolk, and decorate with crossed strips of anchovies and a sprinkling of capers. Divide the beans, tomatoes, and tuna into 6 portions, and place at strategic intervals around the potatoes.
Survey the platter, scattering black olives and tucking parsley springs wherever needed. Serve as soon as possible.
Oil and Lemon Dressing:
• 1/2 lemon, zested and juiced (at least 1 tablespoon)
• 1/4 teaspoon salt
• Freshly ground black pepper
• 1/2 tablespoon Dijon mustard
• 1/2 tablespoon finely minced shallots or scallions
• 1/2 cup excellent olive oil
Grate the lemon peel into a screw-top jar, add the salt, several grinds of pepper, mustard, minced shallots, and 1 tablespoon lemon juice. Shake well to blend, then pour in the oil and shake vigorously again. Taste for seasoning, adding more lemon, salt and pepper if needed.
Yield: about 2/3 cup

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Stop by, bring wine.

Preferably good wine. Food would be good, too.