Composed, or tossed? Fresh tuna, or canned?
Southern France's classic salad of greens, tuna, anchovies, haricots verts and such is not only one of summer's most delightful pleasures, it is also a philosophical quagmire.
Traditionally, the salad is composed – all the ingredients arranged artfully on a platter. But should it be? Last year, Daniel Gritzer argued convincingly in a post on Serious Eats that serving it that way is a mistake. Composed salads, he wrote, "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."
Gritzer definitely has a point. He may even be right. For his version, he tosses together potatoes, tomatoes, haricots verts, capers, oil-packed tuna, anchovies and greens in vinaigrette, then garnishes the salad with quartered hard-boiled eggs (he doesn't want to eggs to fall apart, and rightly so).
Still, there's something so glorious about a gorgeously composed salade niçoise. I can't think of another dish that's so easy to make that makes such a stunning impression. If you're into easy summer entertaining, it doesn't get much better than this. Break out the rosé!
For me, the most pressing question is the tuna. But as far as I'm concerned, it's a no-brainer: While a salade niçoise made with fresh seared tuna can be really nice, canned tuna is what's traditional, and to my taste, it's even better (not to mention easier). Especially if you use great-quality canned tuna – like the Tonnino brand jars of tuna fillets in olive oil you can pick up at Whole Foods Markets and other fancy supermarkets, or cans of Spanish bonito or ventresca (tuna belly).
For the potatoes, I like golf-ball sized red potatoes, which I cut in half. But you can use larger ones and slice them. If you can't find the slim haricots verts, use regular green beans. As far as anchovies go, you could certainly use the white ones, but I prefer the salt-cured ones for this dish. Use the best ripe tomatoes you can find.
Arrange it, as is traditional, on a platter, pass it around, let everyone serve themselves
Here's my little have-it-both-ways secret. I like to make the giant composed salad – large enough to serve four – for just my husband and myself for dinner, and refrain from dressing the platter. We dress our plates individually, eat our fill, then I put the leftovers in the fridge. Next day for lunch I separate the greens and the eggs and make a tossed version, cutting up the haricots verts, tomatoes and potatoes, and tossing them with greens, tuna, anchovies and olives in the shallot vinaigrette. I divide it between two plates, and garnish with the leftover eggs.
It's a dreamy lunch. Especially with that glass of rosé.
So there you have it. Go forth and make salad.