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Summertime, and fish salad is easy

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Picture yourself on a beachfront deck somewhere on the coast of Carolina. Instead of grabbing a sandwich on the run, you're about to sit down to a relaxed lunch on pottery plates, talk with friends and stay out of the sun's burning rays. It may not be the Côte D'Azur, but then again, there's no place like home, and we can bring some of that tranquil South of France mealtime spirit together in our own way, with Salad Niçoise.

I love this dish, and there are as many ways to fix it as there are Provençal villages, with almost as many versions claiming to be authentic and traditional.

In summer, it's a gift meal: easy, hearty enough to play center stage as a main dish and to stand up to full-bodied red wines, and special enough to serve when we want to show off our farmers' market riches. The markets have been abundant for a few months now, and it's easy to take the produce for granted, so here is a dish highlighting good old green beans and potatoes; one that returns to tomatoes, onions, eggs, N.C. fish and herbs (including garlic) we've previously lauded in these pages.

The following recipe is an adaptation. I've had it served as a composed arrangement where diners serve themselves as they prefer. That style uses the vinaigrette potato salad as a bed, onto which the beans, tuna, tomatoes, olives and hard-boiled eggs are fanned in groups. I've also eaten it as a chunky tossed salad where the tuna, beans, potatoes are mixed together and mounded in the serving dish and the rest arranged symmetrically on top. Either way, it's the combination of fresh goods that counts.

We are in the hot, lazy part of summer, so the very little cooking involved in Salad Niçoise —best done ahead in any case, giving flavors time to blend—is right up most allies. Many old cookbooks I've read call for "tinned" tuna because the dish was originally created to jazz up preserved fish with seasonal vegetables. Either way, it's a dish made in roughly half an hour that uses at least a half-dozen local ingredients. It's delicious eaten at room temperature, and refrigerated leftovers disappear without a complaint.

Salad Niçoise with vinaigrette

SALAD
1/2 pound fresh, wild-caught tuna, seared or grilled (3-5 minutes a side) to medium doneness (or a 12-ounce can best quality, oil packed albacore "white meat" tuna)
2 cups whole baby green beans as slender as you can get them, trimmed, de-stringed and blanched (2-3 minutes) until tender
1 pound small new potatoes, cleaned of rough spots but unpeeled, cooked until just tender (12 minutes in already boiling water)
12 cherry tomatoes, halved; or 4 vine-ripe Roma tomatoes, chopped
1 tin (2-3 ounces) anchovies
8 ounces Niçoise olives
4 eggs, hard-boiled and halved

VINAIGRETTE
1/2 cup red wine or balsamic vinegar
1/2 cup olive oil (more if you like the oil's fruitiness in a dressing)
1/2 cup minced fresh herbs (such as parsley, chives, arugula, dill)
1 clove garlic, minced
1 small green onion, chopped; or a tablespoon of chopped Vidalia style onion
Sea salt and fresh ground pepper to taste

Whisk together the ingredients for the vinaigrette in the large bowl you want to compose and serve the salad in. Add potatoes and green beans and toss gently so they keep their shape. At this stage, you can set the recipe aside and go swimming or dead-head your geraniums. When ready to serve it, cut the tuna into chunky pieces that will hold up mixed into the beans and potatoes. On top of the tuna, potatoes and green bean mixture, arrange the olives, anchovies, tomatoes and halved eggs, yolk side up, in whatever spiral you like. Serves four as a main dish.

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