Sunday, August 12, 2012

Salade Niçoise au Saumon

European born and raised, I tend to think in European ways. So it’s probably not surprising that one of my favorite summer meals is Salade Niçoise (pronounced “Sa-lahd Nee-soise”). With reference to food, the French term “Niçoise” means “characteristic of Nice,” a charming city that lies on the sunny Mediterranean, in Frances southeast. The food is typically Mediterranean, too - fresh fruits and vegetables, delicious cheeses, wines, capers, olives, perhaps a few sardines or anchovies ...

As I wrote a few days ago, I don’t want to turn the oven on during the heat of summer. Instead, I think like a European, relaxing in the sun as often as I can. 

Breakfast in the sun: Summer fades too fast
(As I write these words on a sunny Saturday morning, Ron has just bought croissants from the village baker and is now frothing the milk for cappuccinos. Whenever we have croissants for breakfast on our little deck, he tells me about the time he ate Parisian croissants on the Champs Elysées. As I always do, I tell him how I ran - ran! - up the 700-plus steps to the Eiffel Tower’s troisième étage, pausing only to admire the view before running down. We have told one another these stories many times before. With luck, we will tell them many times more. They are part of our history of the time before we met. These summer days will fade too fast, and so will we. Wherever you live, whoever you are, everyone deserves breakfast in the sun).

And so to Salade Niçoise! When I prepared it a few evenings ago, I put my own spin on it. There are no hard-and-fast rules, but I think of the classic dish as including seared, rare tuna. Although our village also has an excellent fish monger, I used salmon, if only because I had two small fillets in the freezer. I also think of Salade Niçoise as including crisp, barely-cooked beans, and perhaps baby carrots, stems and tips intact (Please do not use that unfortunate excuse for carrots that arrive uniformly sized and already peeled like orange thumbs. They may be fine for a school lunch or a hike, but they are not fine to place on a dinner table where taste and appearance count).

But these are empty words: I had neither carrots nor beans on hand. What I had as well as salmon, were a few delicate nugget potatoes, a handful of sun-ripened tomatoes, some eggs, a jar of kalamata olives in olive oil, and a small bunch of fresh asparagus. 

With any good food, we feast with the eyes before we do with the palate. With Salade Niçoise, the contrasts of taste, texture, and color count. The best Salades of the region Ive had have been presented on rectangular dishes or platters. Because it felt rustic and would hold enough Salade for the two of us, I chose a small wooden platter that I don’t use enough. It proved perfect. (On the subject of platters, use anything that strikes your fancy, including a clean, rectangular, clay drip tray for plants. Be creative!) And so, having set out my ingredients and platter, I was ready to begin.

Wanting them well chilled, I cooked the salmon fillets, first. I added a whisper of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and granulated sugar to a small, non-stick skillet, which I heated on high. Tossing in the fillets, I seared each a couple of minutes per side. The balsamic vinegar and sugar coated them here and there, giving them the appearance of having been barbecued. Removing them to a small plate, I chilled them in the fridge.

Filling two pots and a skillet with water, I put two unshelled eggs into one; six small potatoes into the second; and a few asparagus spears into the third. These quantities were about right for the two of us.

Hard-cooking eggs is not the slap-dash procedure you may think. If that surprises you, please consult the Index, where you’ll learn How to Hard-Cook an Egg. Having successfully done that, chill the eggs in an ice-water bath. Boil (or ideally, steam) the potatoes until a careful prod with sharp knife indicates they’re soft at the center. Test them several times as they cook, being sure to remove the smallest nuggets first, because they’ll cook faster than their fatter cousins. 

Boil or steam the asparagus only a minute or two, immediately transferring the spears to ice water. If appearance is paramount, add a pinch of baking soda to the unsalted water in which you cook the spears, and they will remain bright green. Use this trick sparingly, because it strips asparagus of its nutrients (In an unguarded moment, President Obama once admitted he doesn’t care for asparagus. That maligned vegetable’s finest moment came at a dinner party in 1951, when JFK confessed to a journalist that “I leaned across the asparagus and asked [Jackie] for a date.”). 

Peel, shell and halve the eggs. Blot the olives, potatoes, and asparagus dry. Give the tomatoes a quick rinse and a blot. Being mindful of color, lay everything on your platter. You may want to add a small bed of lettuce under the fish. The residual oil and balsamic vinegar will drip over it, making a tasty, if small, green salad. Dust the eggs with paprika and sprinkle freshly chopped parsley (or dried parsley flakes) over the potatoes. We ate all of this al fresco, accompanied by Belgian beer. Cest la chose française à faire! 

If you like, you can add a small side dish of the garlic-flavored mayonnaise called Aioli to enhance the chilled fish and potatoes. If you wish, you can sprinkle on a few capers. I did neither, but will give you a beautiful recipe for Ultra-Creamy Aioli tomorrow.

Lay fillets in sizzling oil, searing but not cooking through

Balsamic vinegar and sugar lend a slightly burnt look

The cooked asparagus went directly into an ice-water bath

Split hard-cooked eggs lengthwise

Feast first with the eyes, then with the tongue:
Click on the photo to enlarge it!

The perfect summer meal: Food that is fresh, crisp, and chilled

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