Authenticity is a broad subject that probably many people agree that we’ll never agree on, since food changes and evolves, as time goes by, and as people cross borders, using what they can get where they live. But I sometimes have an amusing image in my head that the people who are scouring the internet, pointing out inauthentic recipes, are sitting in cafes, eating chicken Caesar Salads. (The true Caesar Salad doesn’t have chicken on it. Or tomatoes, shrimp, corn, or tortilla chips, which I’ve seen.)
I didn’t know a lot about Salade Niçoise, the true version, until I came to France. But even so, your chances of finding a vrai (true) Salade Niçoise are almost nil. I’ve seen versions that have everything from rice to Parmesan on them, and some even have cooked green beans and potatoes.
What? You are probably saying to yourself. Potatoes and green beans are supposed to be on a Salade Niçoise – right? Well, not really. A true Niçoise Salad only has raw vegetables. It can have anchovies or canned tuna, but never both, and neither is required. (Grilled tuna is another no-no.) The only thing cooked on the salad are hard-boiled eggs.
Before you click away in shame or disbelief, it’s fine if you want to use all those things on your salad. I’m okay with defunding the authenticity police. But if you want to make a true Salade Niçoise, that’s what’s happening here.
The two proponents of the authentic Salade Niçoise that I look to guidance for are Jacques Médecin, in his book Cuisine Niçoise, and The Cuisine of the Sun by Mireille Johnston. Jacques Médecin was the former mayor of Nice who was a fierce proponent of authentic Niçoise cooking, said in his final words before his recipe for (Genuine) Salade Niçoise; “…never, ever, I beg you, include boiled potato or any other kind of boiled vegetable in your salade niçoise.”
Mireille was a bit more gentle, advising readers to “Use the freshest raw vegetables, never frozen or canned.” (In case anyone might be inclined to steam a fresh vegetable, she italicized raw.)
Another difference is the dressing. Jacques says to rub the salad bowl with a clove of garlic and just dress the salad with olive oil and fresh basil, saying vinegar and vinaigrette doesn’t belong on the salad, Mireille sauces hers with a vinagrette made with basil and garlic, and yes…vinegar.
Lest I (or they) scare you away from making Salade Niçoise, the great news is that it’s actually quite easy, and a lot of the work can be done in advance. You can even make the whole salad in advance and keep it in the refrigerator. (Jacques actually tells you to do that before serving to get it well-chilled.) If you don’t like anchovies, one piece of advice I can give you is to try very good anchovies.
The best I’ve had are Callol Serrats, which are beautiful strips, caught and packed in Catalonia that aren’t fishy or mushy, but pretty perfect. (Beaune Imports exports them to the U.S. The price reflects that they are shipped under optimal conditions and even Chez Panisse uses them.) The upside to them also is they are packed in oil so there’s no messy cleaning. But find a good anchovy, if you use them, avoiding those that come in those rectangular tins, which are usually not-so-great.
For the anti-anchovy folks, you can open a can of tuna and use that, adding the flakes or pieces to the salad. According to Jacques Médecin, people in Nice used anchovies (which they put up themselves at home) if they couldn’t afford to buy tinned tuna.
I don’t love bell peppers so keep them off my Salade Niçoise and while both authors agree on cucumbers, Mireille is a fan of thinly sliced fennel. I made a few other observations before the recipe but the main thing when you’re cooking and eating is to enjoy yourself. If you want to add whatever, you can. Just don’t tell Jacques, or Mireille.
For the Salad
- 5-6 medium tomatoes, sliced and gently salted
- 1 small head of lettuce, preferably a soft lettuce, such as Bibb or Boston
- 12 radishes, sliced
- 1 small cucumber, peeled, seeded, and sliced
- 3/4 cup (110g) peeled fava beans, or 8-10 very small artichokes, trimmed and very thinly sliced
- 1/2 cup (70g) black olives, Niçoise or oil-cured, pitted or unpitted
- 4 hard-cooked eggs, peeled and quartered (see note after recipe)
- 5-6 anchovy filets, cut into thin strips lengthwise, or a 6 ounce (180g) tin of tuna
- 4 spring onions or 6 scallions, trimmed to just use the white and light green parts, thinly sliced, or 1/2 small red onion, peeled and thinly sliced
- freshly ground black pepper
For the vinaigrette
- 3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
- 1/2 cup (125ml) extra-virgin olive oil
- 10-12 leaves fresh basil
- 2 small cloves garlic, peeled and minced
- In a small bowl, sprinkle a little salt over the tomato slices and let stand 10 minutes.
- Wash and dry the salad. Place the leaves in a salad bowl or on a serving platter. (You can either place the ingredients in individual piles over the lettuce to make a "composed salad" or do as I do here, and just arrange everything over the lettuce.)
- Arrange the radishes, cucumber slices, fava beans (or artichokes), olives, quartered hard-cooked eggs, and tomatoes over the lettuce. (Drain away any liquid the tomatoes may have exuded.) Place the anchovy strips over the eggs. If using tuna, scatter big pieces or flakes over the salad.
- Make the vinaigrette by stirring the vinegar and salt together in a small bowl until the salt is dissolved. Stir in the olive oil, then the garlic and basil and add them. Taste and adjust for salt and to make sure the balance of vinegar and olive oil is right.
- Serve the salad. You can either dress the salad before serving (some people gently toss the ingredients together, before serving), or serve the salad undressed and let guests add their own dressing. If you dress the salad beforehand, add some freshly ground pepper when you do. If not, have a peppermill handy for guests to use.
Related Recipes and Links
How to Prepare Fava Beans (Fine Cooking)
Niçoise Salad (Simply Recipes)
Salade Niçoise (Nicerendezvous, in French)
French Purists Rise Up in Defense of Niçoise Salad (Times of Malta)