Sunday, September 25, 2011

Salade Nicoise and Breaking the Rules...

Salade Nicoise is a dish that's intrigued me for a while - it's a classic French dish which is basically the French version of a Cobb salad.  Jamie wasn't quite as intrigued as I was - he's not too excited when I suggest salad as a meal - but he does love tuna.  It seems everyone has their own way of making it, but there are some pretty strong opinions about what does and does not make an authentic Salade Nicoise.  Capers, anchovies, or both?  Canned tuna or seared tuna?  Are cooked potatoes acceptable, or is the salad supposed to be composed of only raw veggies?

This article by David Lebovitz was interesting, and it got me thinking.  Are there really finite rules in cooking, or not?  Certainly, there are rules in baking which must be followed or the cake won't rise, the bread will be doughy, the cupcakes will overflow the pan, etc...  Everyone knows that frosting slides off a warm cake.  I won't argue with chemistry.  But if someone tells me that I'm supposed to use canned tuna on a salad instead of a gorgeous tuna steak, seared on each side, nice and rare in the middle, then I have to ask why?  Jamie eats canned tuna every day for the lean protein before working out, and I wouldn't make him eat it for dinner, too.  Can't I add potatoes if I think they'd be good in the dish?  Do I have to use fava beans?  I'm not even sure what a fava bean is.

It bugs me when cooks say that you have to use shortening for a perfectly flaky pie crust, when I've made completely wonderful all-butter crusts that are flavorful and flaky (I think shortening is just a little icky).  Or that you should spray the bottom and sides of a cake pan - if you were cake batter, would you like to climb a slippery wall? 

Of course, there are rules everywhere, enforced on us, or ones we enforce on ourselves.  In high school, I read "The Rules", thinking it held all the secrets of how to get a boyfriend, and I did try my best to learn those secrets.  I wasn't very good at following those rules, though, combined with being incredibly shy and very insecure about my curly frizzy hair which I hadn't yet learned how to control.  Nicknames like "fountain head" come to mind for the way I used to wear the top half of my hair pulled to the top of my head in a brightly-colored scrunchie.  Then in my 20s, I read "The Art of Kissing", and I truly believed that there must be a perfect formula to the perfect kiss (trying to remember that formula in the moment, though, can be a little distracting).  Turns out the perfect formula for the perfect kiss is...  not trying to make it too perfect and appreciating the moment for what it is.

So maybe fish with cheese isn't such a great combination, and you should always wash your hands after handling raw chicken, but in general, don't worry about the "rules".  If the recipe says to use cinnamon and you prefer nutmeg, well go for it!  Slather your scrambled eggs with ketchup if that's the way you like them.  Wear white after Labor Day if it's still hot out.  Kiss someone you love with all your heart and don't worry about the fact that you just ate onions.  Drown a piece of cake in a bowl of milk (the way my dad likes it) or eat apple pie with chocolate ice cream (the way my mom likes it).  Don't be afraid of raw eggs.  Eat dessert first.  Or make your own version of a French classic dish.

Salade Nicoise with Seared Tuna
  • 1 tuna steak
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 cup baby potatoes, whole and unpeeled
  • 2 cups mixed salad greens
  • handful of fresh green beans, trimmed
  • 1/2 zucchini, sliced
  • 1/2 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
  • 1/2 cup mixed Greek olives
  • 2 tablespoons capers
  • 1/2 shallot, finely minced
  • olive oil and balsamic vinegar for drizzling
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
  • salt and pepper
Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a non-stick skillet over medium high heat.  Season the tuna with salt and pepper.  Sear the tuna for 2 minutes on each side.  Transfer to a plate and cover with foil until ready to slice.

Meanwhile, place the whole baby potatoes in a medium saucepan, add a pinch of salt and cover with several inches of water.  Bring water to a boil and boil the potatoes for 15-20 minutes, until they can be easily pierced with a fork.  Drain and set aside to cool slightly, then cut each potato in half or into bite-sized pieces.

Arrange the salad greens on a platter.  Arrange the green beans, zucchini slices, cherry tomatoes, olives and potatoes on top of the greens.  Sprinkle the capers and minced shallots on top.  Drizzle with 1-2 tablespoons olive oil and balsamic vinegar.  Sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Slice the tuna and arrange slices on top of the salad.  Serve immediately with fresh bread and olive oil, balsamic vinegar and herbs for dipping the bread.

If eaten as a meal, this makes 2 generous servings.  If served with other food, it can serve 4 people.