I first encountered Salade Niçoise in a most embarrassing way — by reading about it in a cheap romance novel.
The salad appeared in a typically evocative of a dime store read. A beautiful protagonist perched at a table under a striped umbrella on an immaculate beach in Cannes waiting for a murky character. The server brought her a bracingly cold glass of Chablis and Salade Niçoise. At this point, the author abandoned the entire plot to wax poetically about the brackish black olives, crisp greens, tender French green beans and plump tomatoes for at least two pages.
I don’t know what happened to the character. Although only 14-years-old, I put down the book and picked up The French Chef by Julia Child. I made it sans anchovies or capers, and with green olives and cheap tuna packed in water and juice from one of those plastic yellow lemons as that’s all we had in the house. It was still good: lemony, fresh and elegant.
Twenty years later while living in London, I fled to Cannes one weekend for the sole purpose of recreating that scene. As I sat under a striped umbrella, alone with a glass of wine waiting for my salad, I wondered whatever happened in that book? I’m sure she met some handsome, mysterious stranger and fell in love. Even so, I’m curious how she got there.
What is Salade Niçoise, anyway?
In the heat of summer, Salade Niçoise is one of my go-to dishes.
Named for Nice, the beachfront town on the southeastern coast of France, Salade Niçoise sounds fancy but it’s a great, relatively inexpensive dish in warm months. You’ll need fresh tomatoes, green beans and lettuce, while the rest of the dish’s ingredients can be kept on hand in the fridge or pantry, namely eggs, olives, capers, anchovies and canned tuna.
Yes, I said canned tuna. There’s a raging debate about the use of fresh versus canned fish. Even Dorie Greenspan writes in Around My French Table that a French friend implored that she “not go all modern and use fresh tuna.” The second line of my notes on the dish from Le Cordon Bleu read: “Always canned tuna, packed in oil.” (I think it was The Gray Chef from Sharper, a culinary purist.) But Ina Garten shrugs off such controversy and employs simply grilled fresh tuna steaks in her version.
What does Escoffier say?
Looking for an answer, I turned to Auguste Escoffier, the man who codified French cuisine. He described the dish as “equal quantities string beans, potato dice and quartered tomatoes. Decorate with capers, pitted olives and anchovy fillets. Season with oil and vinegar.” Note the glaring lack of tuna, canned or otherwise, in the description. Another point of contention: Should the ingredients be cordoned off into ghettos, the green beans to one side, the potatoes to another? Escoffier generously allowed that the arrangement of vegetables were “subject to no rules, merely a matter of taste.” I interpret this to mean I should arrange in whatever way pleases my own heart. The same can be said for your tuna. Go fresh if you want. Your kitchen should be a judgement-free zone.
Involve a quality canned tuna in this affair
But if you do used canned tuna, I implore you not to reach for a cheap supermarket variety. Splurge on a Mediterranean option (I’m partial to Tonnino Ventresca), or better yet, a sustainable wild caught albacore such as the brand I use here in Seattle from the fishing boat St. Jude.
Use good olives
In France, this is made with Niçoise olives, but these can be expensive and hard to come by outside the country. I recommend using whatever good olives you like, whether they’re black, green or a blend. Avoid cheap canned black olives as they add little to the final result.
A bit about capers
Is it worth the extra money to purchase “non-pareil” capers? That’s up to you. Capers are sold by size, with smaller ones prized for their more delicate and subtile flavor. Capers which measure less than 7 millimeters qualify as “non pareil,” which in French means “no equal.” Capers may seem a little expensive, but a few go a long way to add a punch of flavor to dishes such as this recipe for chicken piccata.
In the end, go with what you’ve got and what you like
After years of making and eating Salade Niçoise, I’ve come down to this variation on Julia’s classic. Nothing wrecks this salad faster than bland potatoes, so I prefer the classic Southern French approach to flavor them in their own right first as a potato salad. If you’re pressed for time, just toss them in a bit of vinaigrette.
Escoffier didn’t mention lettuce. I’m partial to a simple butter lettuce or a fresh arugula. The latter has some bite which adds depth to the salad, but use what you’ve got on hand or prefer.
Vary to what’s in your kitchen. No shallots? Use red or white onions. No cherry tomatoes? Just chop up one big one. No capers? That’s OK, leave them out.
Once you’ve made your salade, all that’s left is to find a place in the sun with a cold glass of wine or a chilled Perrier with lemon. The paperback romance is optional.
Classic Salade Niçoise for Two
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice or white wine vinegar
- 1/2 teaspoon mustard
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme
- Coarse salt
- ground black pepper
- 2 large Yukon gold potatoes cut into eight pieces
- 2 tablespoons chicken or vegetable stock (optional)
- 1 tablespoon chopped parsley
- 2 teaspoons minced shallot or onion
- 1 teaspoon capers optional
- 4 ounces green beans
- 1 handful cherry tomatoes (halved) or 1 large tomato diced
- 3 ounces butter lettuce arugula, romaine or other greens
- 12 cup olives black or green, sliced
- 2 hard-boiled eggs roughly chopped or quartered
- 7 oz. can tuna packed in olive oil
- 4 anchovy fillets optional
Prepare the vinaigrette
- In a small bowl or jar, mix the lemon juice, olive oil, thyme, two pinches of salt, coarse ground pepper and shake or whisk together until emulsified. Set aside until needed.
Prepare the potatoes
- Steam or boil the potatoes just until tender. While still warm, toss gently with stock and a bit of salt. After a few minutes, toss again with half the vinaigrette, chopped parsley, capers and shallots or onion.
Compose the ingredients
- Arrange the cooked green beans, tomatoes, lettuce, hard-boiled eggs and olives in a bowl. Toss with the vinaigrette. Arrange the elements onto two plates, top each with the anchovies and tuna.
- Fill pan with cold water. Place colander inside and add the chopped potatoes. Bring to a boil and cook for about eight minutes.
- Add the green beans and cook for another five. Remove the potatoes and beans from the pot in one swoop by removing the colander.
- Turn the heat down to a simmer and add the eggs. Cook for four minutes, then turn off the heat. Cover and let sit for 10 minutes. It will be easier to peel the eggs while still warm.
- If you don't have this colander-in-a-pan setup, don't worry. You can use tongs, a large slotted spoon, a small mesh sieve or even chopsticks to pull out the potatoes and green beans, but take care not to burn yourself.
French Tip: To keep the green beans crisp and retain bright color, boil briefly just until tender, then plunge into an ice bath.
You may want to take a look at my vinaigrette video lesson. This recipe was originally posted in 2016. It has been updated.