Earlier this year, The Boy and I combined our meager carpentry skills and built three small vegetable boxes for our backyard garden. We filled them with just the right combination of rich soil and compost, and then planted neat little rows of seeds in hopes that we'd soon be harvesting bushel after bushel of beautiful homegrown food.
Our early optimism didn't last, though. The radish bolted, the cucumbers vines grew huge but stubbornly refused to produce female blossoms, and as for the peas... well.. let's say the harvest was dismal and leave it at that.
And then came late July, and our little vegetable patch redeemed itself as the hardy little bush beans began to produce handful upon handful of lovely green beans. These little beans were living, edible proof that my gardening thumb might be more dark brown than pitch black, and for that reason alone, they were worthy of my utmost respect - especially when these were beans so tender and flavourful that it seemed like a crime to serve them any way but barely steamed with a dab of butter.
Though... what with all the lovely baby potatoes and the juicy plump tomatoes at the farmers' market, it seemed to me that a simple Salade Nicoise would be the ultimate way to pay tribute to my garden's bounty.
Now, if there ever was a salad made for late summer, it's got to be the Nicoise. By arranging the various parts of the salad on the plate rather than tossing them with dressing, each ingredient can be appreciated on its own - waxy boiled potatoes, juicy sweet tomatoes, tender-crisp green beans and delicate Bibb lettuce all get their chance to shine, accented with the salty, briny flavours of olives, capers and anchovies, and a few slices hard-boiled egg for richness. A simple mustard-tarragon vinaigrette then pulls the various parts into a single delicious whole.
When made with fresh ingredients at their peak, it's not just a salad... it's a masterpiece.
Of course, a proper nicoise in the traditional style should be made with tuna canned in oil, but I decided to substitute it with a seared tuna steak in this version. However, if you're able to get your hands on good-quality canned tuna, do feel free to use that instead.
Salade Nicoise with Seared Tuna
Small tuna steaks (one per diner)
Salt and pepper
Boston or Bibb lettuce
Sliced ripe tomatoes
Blanched green beans
Cooked baby potatoes
Sliced hardboiled eggs
Oil-cured black olives
2 tbsp white wine vinegar
2 tsp Dijon mustard
1 tsp honey
1 tbsp finely minced shallot
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
2 tbsp chopped fresh tarragon
¼ cup olive oil
First, prepare the tuna. Pat the steak(s) dry, then sprinkle liberally with salt and pepper.
Heat a small amount of olive oil in a heavy-bottomed pan set over high heat, and sear for 1-2 minutes per side - just long enough to get a nice crust on the outside while leaving the inside a perfect rare pink. Remove from heat and let sit for 5 minutes.
Now, to assemble the salad. You'll notice that I've omitted the quantities for the various salad ingredients - this is because making a Nicoise is more of an art than a science. Use as much or as little of each ingredient as you please, or leave some of them out altogether. As long as you use good ingredients and good judgment, you can't possibly go wrong.
The basics are these: arrange a bed of lettuce on each plate. Cut the tuna against the grain into thick slices, and lay these down in the middle of the lettuce. Arrange the various salad components around the tuna, in whatever amounts and combinations you please (me, I skip the capers and anchovies, because they're not really my favourites).
In a small bowl, whisk together all of the dressing ingredients until combined.
To finish, drizzle your beautiful plate of salad with a generous amount of the dressing.
Eat with gusto (and possibly a nice chunk of crusty bread, so that you can soak up any dressing left on your plate at the end.)