“Daddy, can we have that feast again?” my four-year-old, Georgia, asked me yesterday, batting her eyes. I couldn’t remember any feast, but thought to myself, “Careful Jason…This might turn into a ‘Why can’t I have chocolate cake right now?’ battle.” So, I replied in my calmest voice, “Huh? No, probably not sweetie.” Seeing her forlorn eyes staring back at me, I asked, “Well, what feast?”
I then determined, through all kinds of hand signals and method acting, that what she wanted was a salad. Salad Nicoise, in fact. Not chocolate cake. What self-respecting father and chef won’t give a little girl a salad?!
Salad Nicoise is a mixed salad, usually served on a bed of lettuce. The lettuce merely frames all the goodies, and, according to some French types, it can be omitted. The goodies range from canned tuna, chilled hard boiled eggs, blanched green beans, boiled potatoes, tomato or red pepper wedges, Nicoise olives (hence, the name), all the way to tinned anchovies. Depending on who you ask, the salad originated either on the French Riviera, or in Provence.
Check out these great old clips of Julia Child enthusiastically producing a classic salad Nicoise:
These days, contemporary restaurants play the upscale card with the protein, serving fresh tuna instead of canned. That’s nice—but in truth, I’m a sucker for an old-fashioned tuna salad, so the Chicken of the Sea stays. Yesterday, when I made it, instead of playing with the tuna, I focused on the plating, rendering the composed salad into a participatory event.
First, I set a salad bowl on the table, full of mixed greens, blanched green beans, and red peppers, tossed in a vinaigrette made from shallots, Dijon mustard, red wine vinegar, and a mix of vegetable and olive oils. (Mixing the oils lightens the flavor of extra virgin olive oil.) Then, I scooped up some fresh tuna salad complete with a lemony mayonnaise and minced celery, and served it separately in a bowl. (At the restaurant I only use fresh mayonnaise, but at home a squeeze of lemon and a grind of pepper added to store-bought mayo works, too.) On a separate plate, I put warm, ready-to-be-peeled, soft-boiled eggs, still steaming and ready to be spread onto crusty bread, and to be sprinkled with generous pinches of salt and fresh ground pepper. Then on another separate plate I fried up some American-style potatoes, cubed and pan-fried, crispy, in a cast iron skillet, and then drizzled them with a little olive oil, lemon juice, and a sprinkle of fresh herbs and black pepper. Lastly, on yet another, and our final plate, I served anchovies and olives. I selected appropriate beverages, pink wine for the adults, pink Kool-Aid for the kids, and got to feasting.
Fun ensued. I caught the kids rolling lettuce around crispy potatoes and dipping them in vinaigrette, and making mini tuna and egg sandwiches. Lots of separate plates of food, some warm, some cold, some crispy, some soft, got them involved in the meal. They chose their own custom bites and enjoyed eating with their hands. It was a feast fit for a four-year-old and grownups alike.