One of my favorite things about Salad Nicoise is how easy it is to use what is fresh to make something wonderful. This Provencal classic relies on simple ingredients, easy preparation, and seasonal flavors. It can easily become a meal itself, or serve as a side or appetizer. Salad Nicoise (or Salad Niçoise more accurately) is adaptable to whatever you need it to be. But no matter how you choose to make it, you will see that it is a worthy addition to your culinary repertoire.
I’m not going to be breaking any new ground here on this salad. It is as classical a salad as you can get. Everybody seems to have a version, and every version is a bit different. Some claim to be “authentic”, others claim “innovation”. Some opinions are strong. Others less so. I will tell you this – my opinion is strong only in this regard. You get to make this salad what you want to. Add or subtract what you like. Learn a bit about the “basics”, but adapt at will. Food is far more enjoyable if you like it.
My inspiration for today’s post was a recent trip to my local farm stand. They had fresh baby lettuce mixes. Nice tender leaves in bright and vibrant colors. Always a good start. But more importantly, they had “breakfast radishes”. They are only available in my area in late spring and early summer.
Breakfast radishes are to me a sure sign that summer is nearly upon us. Not as peppery as the more common red radish, they are not as red on the outside and the shape is markedly different. These radishes are not spherical, but long and cylindrical, shaped more like a baby carrot. They pickle nicely, roast nicely, and best of all taste great raw. When I can get them I like to add them to a salad, particularly a Salad Niçoise. They are not part of the ‘classic’ version of this salad. To me they are an improvisation that I really like, so I stick with it.
Back to the salad itself. You probably have everything you need for a Salad Niçoise in your kitchen right now. It really relies on the basics to make something special. Using what you have in your pantry, you can make a simple weeknight dinner. With a couple of subtle variations it becomes an elegant ‘signature’ dish at a bridal shower. I’ve done both.
At its most basic, the classic Salad Nicoise is some greens paired with vegetables, and starch. Next add a protein, and finish with briny olives and a lemony dressing. In the ‘classic’ version, the greens are fresh tender lettuce like a bibb lettuce. Vegetables are tomato and green beans. Protein is tuna, fresh or canned. The starch is potato, and the olives are the black Niçoise variety. While this is the ‘classic’ image of what makes up the Salad Niçoise, it is far from universal. This makes it the perfect salad to adapt to the occasion and ingredients on hand.
How “authentic” is the “classic” view
But it appears that the ‘classic’ view of a Salad Nicoise would be almost unrecognizable in Nice, France, home of the salad. Sure, you can find a ‘tourist’ version that sticks to ‘the script’. Get outside the tourist center, and the presence of tuna, green beans and potatoes becomes less likely. You’re more apt to find anchovies, broad beans, and no potatoes. Even greens aren’t a sure thing. In fact, if you turn the clock back to the 1800’s, the salad Niçoise of the day would be tomatoes, anchovies, and olive oil. Everything else came later.
It is easy to see then that if the ‘classic’ salad Nicoise can’t even be recognized in its home town then it is open for improvisation. That means that you have a lot of running room for adapting it to your own needs. So let’s say that for starters we use the ‘classic’ framework as our starter. From there you have as much or as little flexibility as you would like.
I have used the Salad Nicoise numerous times in my catering work. One reason is because it is so flexible. I have been able to adapt it to how ‘fancy’ or ‘laid back’ my clients wanted to be. I have added and subtracted vegetables, meats, greens – you name it. In fact, the only real ‘constants’ in the various versions that I have served are tomatoes and olives. That’s it — everything else has varied at one point or another.
Composed Salad — what is that?
I like to serve the Salad Nicoise as a ‘composed’ salad. I’m not alone in that. Back to our ‘classic’ version, it is generally served as a composed salad. But what is a composed salad? Composes is a fancy ‘cheffy’ term for a salad that isn’t tossed. Instead, it is arranged (composed) on a plate or platter to make an attractive presentation. Another popular composed salad is a Cobb Salad. Composed salads are often used in buffet settings, allowing people to take only what they want. But a composed salad can also be used for an individual plating of a salad, or a family style dinner.
I like the composed salad here because the elements are so varied from each other. Fish and potatoes and tomatoes and olives aren’t a ‘natural’ pairing for a tossed salad. By not tossing them together, you get to easily ‘eat with your eyes’ the dish before you. But there is no rule that says that you can’t make the Salad Nicoise a tossed salad. Remember, it’s your salad your way. That is the beauty of a salad like this.
Here comes the fun part — making it your own.
So once you decide you want a Salad Nicoise, here are some basics, and a few suggestions for ‘adapting’ it to your taste. Let’s start with the basics. We’ll look at them in a couple of categories – greens, proteins, vegetables, and pickles.
The greens are relatively easy. The biggest decision is do you want them or not? I generally say “yes”, but it wouldn’t be wrong if you didn’t include greens. If you have them, tender, light leaves that are fresh with a bit of ‘crispness’ are best. I would avoid thicker, cruncier leaves. That means bibb lettuce or leaf lettuce is in. Romaine and iceberg are out. You may feel different, but that is my view. Other good options include rocket (arugula) and mixed greens mixes. In my salad above, I have a mix of baby greens from the local farm.
For the protein, things start getting a little more interesting. Or complicated, depending on your point of view. For a quick simple weeknight dinner, canned tuna (packed in olive oil) is the way to go. Open the can, and you’re ready. That’s what I did in the salad pictured at the top of the page, and most any time I have it at home. But you are not limited to canned tuna. In fact a nice seared tuna steak would be a good option. As would salmon. I’ve done it poached, grilled, baked, and smoked. All delicious. When I cater, I most often use poached salmon as that gives me the best ‘presentation’ piece of fish. Or go back to the salad’s roots and stick to anchovies. Or go crazy and use grilled chicken or steak.
Another common protein on a Salad Niçoise is hard boiled egg. I can go either way on this. I like them, and the Elegant Baker doesn’t. Sometimes we have them and sometimes we don’t. The ‘classic’ salad calls for them, but no harm in leaving them out if you like. Be sure to cook them and cool them ahead of time because they cut more easily cooled.
You can also make a vegetarian or vegan option by skipping the fish and eggs altogether. You can either skip the protein, or substitute it with tofu, tossed in a lemon dressing. Other options include protein rich beans like edamame or white beans.
Here is where you can have your most creativity. Let’s start with tomatoes. Almost every version of Salad Nicoise that I have ever seen includes tomatoes. I have always used them. But if you don’t like them – ditch them. I like them so they are always in my versions. I prefer using smaller tomatoes — cherry, grape, or something like that. Cut in half, they make a nice presentation. But no reason you can’t use a larger tomato and cut it in wedges or chunks.
Green beans are often seen as part of the salad. If you include them, steam them or blanch them first, and then chill them. They are more tender that way. Also used are French green beans (haricot vert) or broad beans (fava beans). It is most common to shell them, but for early season tender beans you can leave them in the shell. Like green beans, I would steam and chill them first though.
Everything else from here on is ‘off book’ from the classic salad. Cucumbers, carrots, peppers, artichokes, radishes, and onions. I’ve seen them all referred to in the many recipes available for Salad Niçoise. I like adding radishes, but the smaller, breakfast radishes. Not red radishes — too peppery for my taste. If I’m not able to get the breakfast variety, I pass on the radishes altogether.
When I do add other vegetables, I like to use smaller, more manageable pieces. For example, I cut cucumbers into thinner slices or small chunks. Carrots are smaller, ‘baby’ carrots. For something firm like a carrot, I steam them like the green beans to make them softer. Other veggies to consider are fresh zucchini, broccoli crowns, roasted eggplant or roasted garlic cloves. None of these are “classic”, but any of them can work.
Another ‘staple’ in the classic version is potatoes. I have seen or used potato slices, wedges, mini potatoes whole, and fingerling potatoes cut in half. I used the potatoes both plain, and dressed. They are always cooked and cooled. My favorite way is to take small red potatoes and steam them until cooked. I put them in cold water for a minute or too to cool the outside, but not the inside. I then cut them in quarters while still warm and toss them with some of the dressing for the salad.
The pickles added are mostly open to interpretation. I pretty much think that olives are a must. The most classical olives are the black Niçoise olives that share the name with the salad. Those are not always easy to get, so I generally use kalamata olives instead. Green olives and black olives work as well. I would make sure that they are brine cured to bring that pickled olive flavor to the salad.
Several other pickle options are available here as well. I personally add capers most of the time. Thing is I really like capers so whenever I can have an excuse to use them I do. But they are not necessary if you prefer not. Also possible are small pickled cucumbers like cornichons or gherkins. A couple of either of those are a nice touch.
For sure, you need to start with a good olive oil. In fact, if you want you can dress the salad in only olive oil. I prefer a little more ‘something’, so I go with a simple, lemony dressing for the Salad Niçoise. EVOO, lemon juice, dijon, shallot, salt and pepper. And herbs. The question is what herbs.
The most common herb I’ve seen in the dressing is tarragon. But neither the Elegant Baker nor I very much care for tarragon, so it is never used in our kitchen. If you do use it, only go for fresh. I find that tarragon, like rosemary, is one of those herbs that just doesn’t translate well to dried.
Instead of tarragon, I substitute a bit of dried Herbs de Provence Yes, I know that most HDP includes dried tarragon. But as a bit player, not the star. The lavender and savory come more forward and the tarragon is much less pronounced.
Other options include oregano, thyme, fresh rosemary, or basil. Parsley would be another good candidate. The point is, go with what you like.
Make it Tonight
Regardless of how you choose to make a Salad Nicoise, I suggest that you not only give it a try, but that you add it to your regular summer rotation. It is a versatile and delicious as anything you will eat this summer. It is naturally healthy, and a great use of garden fresh produce.
In the recipe below, I offer my near “classic” interpretation of the Salad Niçoise. I offer it only as a starting point. You can probably make the version below for dinner tonight. And you can do it with what you have in your kitchen already. Once you get through the basics, it becomes yours to take and adapt at will. Add and subtract. Reduce or increase. Really, you can’t be wrong.
Although I include amounts for each ingredient, don’t get too hung up on exact measures. If you’ve always been intimidated by going ‘off recipe’, this is a great place to start practicing improvisation in the kitchen.
Salad Nicoise – Provencal classic. make it your own
- A small platter or large plate suitable enough to hold all of the ingredients
- 2 cups Salad Greens or Bibb Lettuce
- 12 Green Beans steamed and cooled
- 6 Small Red Potatoes steamed, quartered and cooled
- 1 cup Cherry or Grape Tomatoes halved
- 6 Breakfast Radishes trimmed and rinsed
- 1 5 oz can Yellowfin tuna, packed in olive oil drained
- 2 eggs hard boiled, peeled and cooled
- ½ cup Olives, Nicoise or Kalamata
- 1 TBSP Capers
- ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
- 2 TBSP Lemon Juice freshly squeezed
- 1 tsp Shallot minced
- 1 tsp Dijon Mustard
- 1 tsp Herbs de Provence
- kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste
- Combine Olive Oil, Lemon Juice, Dijon Mustard, Shallot and Herbs de Provence in a small jar or bowl and whisk together. Add kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste
- Place quartered potatoes in a small bowl and toss with 1 tablespoon of the prepared dressing
- Loosely spread salad greens on your serving platter
- Place tuna in small mound approximately the center of the platter, but touching one edge
- Artfully arrange potatoes, green beans, tomatoes, radishes and olives around the tuna in such a way as to fill the platter
- Drizzle entire salad with 2 – 3 TBSP of prepared dressing
- Sprinkle capers over the top of the salad
- Add kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste.
- fresh seared tuna
- salmon, poached, grilled, roasted, smoked
- tofu, seasoned with some of the prepared dressing
- grilled chiken
- grilled skirt steak
- broccoli florets
- haricot vert
- broad beans
- pickled cauliflower