I should love Niçoise salads. I should, but I usually don't. It's not the fault of the ingredients—I adore everything in them, from the tender string beans and potatoes to the boiled eggs, tomatoes, salty anchovies, and, when it's there, even the tuna. The problem is the half-assed way most people serve them.
Technically, a Niçoise is meant to be a "composed" salad, with each ingredient artfully arranged on a plate in separate little piles, then drizzled with the dressing. Well, I say phooey to all that. To me, presenting the ingredients like that and calling it a salad is not much different from plunking down a plate of cooked pork topped with whole spices and a pile of salt and calling it sausage.
You want to know what most composed salads really are? They're lazy. They prize presentation over flavor and texture. They're a way for overworked kitchens to assemble the salads well in advance, then fling them out as the orders come crashing in, and for to-go salad shops to ensure that your lunch doesn't collapse into a mound of steamy sludge as you carry it back to your office in the sweltering summer sun. Composed salads may hold up well, but they are not what thoughtful cooks do when they want a salad to be at its best.
The Niçoise has all the potential to be extraordinary, but to get it there, we need to treat it like the best salads, preparing each ingredient with care, cutting them into manageable pieces, and dressing it all properly in a vinaigrette.
Let's start with what belongs in a Niçoise.
The Foundations of a Great Niçoise Salad
Everyone thinks they know what a Niçoise is made of. I did, too. Then I looked it up. Turns out that there's very little consensus about what's supposed to be in a Niçoise, and a lot of ingredients that most of us think are essential are considered interlopers by others.
- According to Larousse Gastronomique, a Niçoise salad is defined as having equal parts diced potatoes and French string beans that are seasoned with oil and vinegar, molded into the shape of a dome, then garnished with anchovy fillets, olives, capers, tomatoes, chervil, and tarragon.
- Escoffier tends to agree with the Larousse description, calling for equal quantities potatoes, string beans, and tomatoes, which are then decorated with capers, olives, and anchovy fillets and seasoned with oil and vinegar.
- Meanwhile, the great French chef Paul Bocuse, in his book Regional French Cooking, launches into a bit of a diatribe about how misunderstood Niçoise salad is. He insists that at its heart, it's nothing more than a salad of tomatoes with wild greens, white onions, and anchovies. Everything else, from the string beans to the olives and eggs, is just a nice but very optional add-on. He's open to a lot of other additions, depending on what's in season: fava beans, artichokes, bell peppers. He does not, however, accept the potatoes, or the tuna you often see.
- This French site, a resource on Nice and the surrounding areas, is steadfast in its assertion that no cooked vegetable—neither green beans nor potatoes—belongs in a proper Niçoise. It agrees with Bocuse that the salad should reflect the seasons, with things like favas and artichokes in the spring. It disagrees with Bocuse, though, about the tuna, listing it as an essential ingredient.
This is great news because it means we can do whatever the heck we want, call it a Niçoise, and no one can stop us. If you want to add thin slices of bell pepper to your Niçoise, go for it. In the mood for some cucumber? Sure thing. I ain't stopping you. Scallions? Shallots? Herbs like basil and tarragon? Uh, yeah!
Okay, maybe I should dial that back just a little bit. We can't do whatever we want. There are a few common threads in all of these descriptions of the salad. First, there always seems to be tomato. Second, anchovy. Third, some form of olive, either the oil alone or in combination with olives themselves. Put those three elements in your salad, add whatever else you want, and it's a Niçoise. (Some people will argue that if it's not composed, it's not a Niçoise. I tell them to go eat their sad pile of unloved vegetables somewhere else.)
For mine, I'm going with those three core ingredients, plus most of the usual suspects: string beans, potatoes, lettuces, capers, eggs, basil, and more. If you have great favas or artichokes or bell peppers or whatever else, don't hesitate to add them to the party.
Here's how I prepare each one.
Ideally, you'll use French green beans, known as haricots verts. They're more delicate and slender than American string beans, which can be a little on the clunky side in a dish like this. If you can't find the French ones, regular string beans are fine (though I'd encourage you to take the extra step of pulling each cooked bean in half lengthwise along its natural division to make it more slender).
To prep them, I trim the stem ends, then blanch the beans until tender-crisp. The old-school blanching wisdom tells you to cook your vegetables in a huge pot of salted boiling water, but my tests have shown that, as with pasta, the amount of water isn't important—everything else being equal, smaller amounts of water will actually come back to a boil faster than large amounts. What is important, though, is that you shock the vegetables in ice water as soon as they're done. Running cold tap water over the vegetables to cool them down may seem like an acceptable shortcut, but you'll get far better results with an ice bath.
I also like to cut the beans into bite-size lengths. That way, they incorporate into the salad more elegantly and are easier to eat. I never understood the appeal of whole, uncut string beans in a Niçoise, since all you're doing is forcing your guests to cut them at the table, while making it difficult for the beans to interact with the other ingredients.
You can prep the beans up to a day in advance, drain and dry them well with towels, then keep them in the fridge overnight.
In a dish like this, I prefer small, slightly waxy potatoes, like young Yukon Golds; the powdery texture of starchy russets just doesn't lend itself to this kind of preparation. The secret to great potatoes is in how you cook them. Do it right, and they'll be so moist and creamy inside, so well flavored and seasoned, that you'll want to eat them plain without even putting a pat of butter on top.
To get those results, I put the potatoes, whole, in a pot of room-temperature water, then add what seems like way, way too much salt. The water should taste inedibly salty. This may sound nuts, but if you read Kenji's piece on salt-crusted potatoes, you'll see that the salt helps draw out excess water from each potato, making it creamier, denser, and more intensely potato-flavored. Meanwhile, it also seasons them just enough, without oversalting them.
Then I add an onion, some cloves of garlic, and a few sprigs of fresh thyme to the water and bring it slowly to a very gentle simmer. Next, I lower the heat to keep it just below a simmer—the water should be steaming and on the verge of bubbling—which helps cook the potatoes very slowly and evenly. When a fork easily pierces them, I shut off the heat and let them rest in the water as it cools.
When you've cooked them this way, there's nothing more to do but crumble them up into the salad once they've reached room temperature. If, however, you've decided to cook the potatoes a day in advance and refrigerate them overnight, they'll require an additional step, since refrigeration retrogrades the starch, recrystallizing it and, therefore, hardening the potatoes.
In that case, I turn to a little trick Niki told me she sometimes likes to use for Niçoise, flattening the potatoes with a pot, then crisping them in oil in a cast iron skillet.
The heat will reverse the starch crystallization, softening the potatoes—plus you get nice crispy bits to mix into the salad. That's definitely a win-win as far as preparing things in advance goes.
The perfect eggs in a Niçoise are medium-boiled, meaning the yolks are no longer runny, but haven't fully firmed up like a hard-boiled egg, either. Runny yolks are unmanageable in a salad like this: Pre-slice the eggs before plating the salad, and you lose half the yolk to your cutting board. Hard-boiled yolks, on the other hand, have a dry, slightly chalky texture that isn't ideal. Medium-boiled ones are just firm enough, but still moist and creamy.
Here, I use Kenji's method of steaming the eggs, cooking them for exactly nine minutes, then shocking them in ice water to halt the cooking.
Anchovies and Tuna
The very best anchovies are salt-packed ones that you prepare yourself. You can follow my step-by-step instructions here if you're willing—the results are worth it—but if not, you can also buy good-quality oil-packed anchovies, which are just salted ones that have been prepped and jarred in oil at the factory. They can still be very good (check out our taste test results here), though they won't quite rise to the level of the DIY kind. I like to cut the fillets into one- to two-centimeter lengths, which lets you get a lot of good bites without having to eat a whole fillet all at once.
As for the tuna, I consider it optional. The anchovies are more than enough—especially since I also add them to the vinaigrette, which I'll explain below. My guess is that tuna eventually became popular because anchovies, sadly, still don't have a ton of fans (though they would if more people ate better-quality ones). Still, I'm not against using tuna. You can add the tuna to the salad with the anchovies, or omit the anchovies and add the tuna in their place if you just can't get down with the anchovies.
You have to do me one favor, though: Don't use just any old can of tuna. Go for the good stuff, like Spanish oil-packed bonito tuna. It's moister and more tender, almost silky, delivering far better flavor and texture than your average canned product.
For the vinaigrette, I start with our basic recipe, which includes garlic, shallot, Dijon mustard, white wine vinegar, and olive oil, but I add minced anchovy to the base. I love adding larger pieces of anchovy to my Niçoise salads, but I don't want to taste them merely sporadically: I want a subtle anchovy flavor throughout the salad, and the vinaigrette is the best way to deliver it.
Tomatoes, Lettuces, Capers, Olives, and Herbs
Everything else is very simple. Get the best tomatoes you can; I like smaller ones that I can just halve or quarter into bite-size pieces, but larger ones work, too. If you're making this when it's not tomato season, cherry tomatoes are your best bet.
There are many options for the greens: Arugula is great, as is a quality mesclun mix, or even tender butter lettuce leaves. In the photos here, I used mizuna, which is less peppery than arugula but has enough flavor and structure to hold its own when tossed with all the other ingredients.
When it comes to capers, I often like to use the salted kind, but a Niçoise has enough salty, briny flavor from the anchovies and the olives, so here I opt for capers in vinegar to get a little punch of acidity in each bite.
The olives, meanwhile, should be Mediterranean ones that are small, black, tender, and oily. Niçoise olives are the obvious choice, though Italian Taggiasca olives are technically the same variety (called Cailletier olives); the main difference between the two is the curing process, with the Taggiasca olives coming out slightly less black than their Niçoise cousins. Buying them pitted will save you a lot of time.
Finally, I like to add herbs. Torn basil leaves are wonderful, delivering blasts of fragrance and flavor, but tarragon, chervil, and parsley would all work just as well, either alone or in combination.
Assembling the Salad
This is the meat-and-potatoes of the salad—or should I say beans-and-potatoes?
As with any thoughtfully prepared salad, I combine all of the ingredients except for the eggs in a large bowl, then drizzle the vinaigrette on top. Using my (clean) hands, I gently toss it all together, until each and every ingredient is lightly coated in the dressing. I season it all with salt and pepper, then portion the salad into individual bowls.
The eggs are the only component that I add afterward in a more "composed" fashion, ringing each bowl with them. This is for practical reasons: Tossing the egg quarters with everything else would cause the yolks to fall out, and an egg, as everyone knows, is most enjoyable when white and yolk are eaten together.
Plus, it looks nicer. (But don't tell anyone I said that.)