Salade Niçoise is an old bird. She gets around. And sometimes she’s not her best. But her potential is incredible. And done right, this salad is satisfying, not a terrible cliché and worthy of its fame.
And before we go any farther, a note on pronunciation in honor of my other (and better) half who has a very particular pet peeve about this. There have been times when he has been “corrected” by servers who think the “s” at the end of niçoise isn’t pronounced. Well, it is. It’s a /z/ sound. The word is pronounced “nee-swoz.” Say it proudly, and in true French fashion, maybe act a little snobby about your knowledge of correct French pronunciation. You’re allowed every once in a while.
As with many world-famous traditional recipes, what makes a “true” salade niçoise is somewhat contested. It’s sometimes said that there shouldn’t be any cooked vegetables on it; rather it should have baby artichokes, red bell peppers, or other uncooked veggies. But when I order this in a restaurant, I’m expecting some cooked potatoes and some green beans. And that’s how I make the salad too.
I have to confess that I’m not generally a fan of a composed salad, either at home or at a restaurant. Composed salads often seem and unblended mish-mash of ingredients, and making them at home often requires a tedious separate preparation of all the various parts.
But I make an exception for salade niçoise, because it’s both light and extremely satisfying. The salad has no heavy dressing, but the potatoes are comforting and make it into a meal. If I’m serving this as just a starter rather than a complete lunch or a light dinner, I’ll just serve a couple of potatoes per person, to make the salad a little less substantial.
And it’s really about as easy as boiling water. While the potatoes cook, you can prep the rest of the ingredients, and then just drop the green beans into the same water that you cooked the potatoes in — so not that tedious at all!
You’ll see versions with beautifully seared ahi tuna in place of the canned tuna. I enjoy expensive seared tuna as much as anyone, but I stick to the canned here. It’s traditional and the salad is just as good with a $2 can (or a couple of cans) of tuna when prepared by you with a little care as set out in the recipe below.
If you’re in the mood to splurge a little, I have a couple of better ideas. And it will cost you a lot less than a fancy piece of tuna. First, splurge on french green beans (haricots verts) if your market has them. They’re smaller and more slender than their American cousins and just adorable. Second, get some real niçoise olives cured in oil. They’re small black olives, usually not pitted, and they will really make a difference. If your market has an “olive bar,” you might be able to just buy what you need for the recipe, and then it’s a very modest splurge at that.
- 10 or so small potatoes (fingerlings, baby reds, baby Yukon Gold, all good)
- About a pound (450 g) of green beans or haricots verts, stem ends removed
- 4 eggs, hard-boiled*
- Salad greens, about 5 handfuls of a mix of soft salad greens, mesclun, etc.
- 1 good shallot, which you should finely chop and rinse
- 2 cans (5 to 6 ounces) of tuna in oil, drained
- 20 or so cherry/grape tomatoes, sliced in half, or 4 regular tomatoes, roughly chopped
- 20 or so olives, preferably small black olives cured in oil
- 2 Tbsp. capers
- 8 anchovies
- Cook the potatoes by putting them in a big pot of well-salted water, bringing it to a boil, and then cooking for 20 minutes or so, until a knife poked into a potato goes in and out easily.
- While the potatoes are cooking, boil the eggs (see note).
- Also, while the potatoes are cooking, finely chop the shallot, and halve or chop your tomatoes.
- Once the potatoes are cooked, fish them out of the water and set aside. Now blanch the beans in the water you cooked the potatoes in. You’re looking for crisp-tender to tender beans, which means you should start checking them and having a taste after 4 minutes. Depending on your beans, you might need 4 minutes, or you might need 10.
- Drain the beans when done, and rinse under cold water until the beans feel cool.
- Spread the greens out on a nice serving platter, or on individual salad plates/bowls if you prefer.
- Sprinkle the shallot over the greens and then sprinkle the greens with salt and pepper. Drizzle a tablespoon or so of vinaigrette over them.
- Cut the eggs and potatoes in half, arrange them over the greens with the tomatoes, green beans, and tuna. You can arrange things in groups symmetrically, or haphazardly, whatever you’re feeling will look good to you.
- Sprinkle the capers and olives over everything, add the anchovies in little crosses on top of the eggs, then drizzle another spoonful of vinaigrette over everything.
- Give the salad one more sprinkle of salt and pepper and serve with the extra vinaigrette so people can have more dressing if they like.
- Eat, imagining you’re in the South of France.