I got a big bag of beautiful, organic string beans in my CSA share last week. As with many of the things I get in my CSA, at first I’m like “ooh! String beans! I never make string beans, what an adventure!” But then I realize that I don’t like string beans. No matter what, they taste like the traumatizing string beans we’d get served in the school cafeteria. You know; the kind that are canned, grey and salty, with phlegmy water refusing to uncling from each bean.
Stuck with the vegetables, I asked myself the same phrase I ask myself during most cooking conundrums, what would a French person do? Usually, the answer will involve lots of butter or, if you’re lucky, mayonnaise. Sometimes you can even pretend your mayonnaise-covered vegetables are virtuous and call it a “salad.” Zut alors! Incroyable! In my case, this weekend, the salad was of the Nicoise variety. Salmon Nicoise salad (or salade Niçoise if you’re convinced that your high school French teacher Madame Clérismé is out there, somewhere, reading this) is a really fun weekend undertaking because it requires a lot of pieces, but together tastes effortless.
I might be over thinking things, but preparing this salad feels like an exercise in design. I like to assemble my salad specifically so that all of the items are incorporated, but there is also the traditional way of assembling a Nicoise salad in a very organized, compartmentalized manner. Either way, something about these ingredients makes you think a little bit harder about the choices you make. Each element has got a shape to it, sometimes echoed by other pieces of the dish (all of the spheres, cut in half! Eggs, tomatoes, potatoes…), and then you lay them all so deliberately alongside each other, only to eventually destroy the elegance of it all as you dig in and mix it all together. It’s quite an existential way to spend a Sunday afternoon if you’re dorky about anchovies and aoilis, like I am.
The particular recipe I followed was based off Gordon Ramsay’s tutorial in his Ultimate Christmas series, which can be found in three parts on YouTube. His version involves coddled eggs and, overall, a bit more finesse, so I simplified mine a bit! See below.
Nicoise Salad with Poached Salmon
1 lb poached salmon fillet (more below)
1 head of lettuce (I used Bibb lettuce, traditionally it’s romaine hearts, watercress also works nicely)
6 small, boiled creamer potatoes, cut into quarters
1/2 lb of par-boiled string beans
4 hard-boiled eggs, cut in half
1 pint of marinated cherry tomatoes (more below)
8 canned/jarred anchovy fillets
aoili dressing (more below)
As you can see, there are a lot of pieces of this salad that need to be prepared before assembling. Luckily, most of this can be done ahead of time! For items like the string beans, potatoes or eggs, get these ready ahead of time, and set aside to cool. Next, I’ll break down the other elements:
For the salmon:
Put together a court bouillon (that’s a fancy way of saying a simple, quick poaching liquid). Here’s a recipe for a more robust version, but I tend to use what I have on-hand, often in unspecific pours, sprinkles and handfuls. If you’re a less experience cook, find a court bouillon recipe online; if you’re more experienced, use your judgement! For mine, I tossed the following into a dutch oven:
- 4ish cups of water
- Center stalks of one celery heart, including leaves
- 1/2 a roughly chopped large carrot
- 1 onion, roughly chopped
- Half of a lemon
- Generous pour of white wine… probably about 3/4 of a cup
- Less generous pour of white wine vinegar, about 1/2 cup
- A few pinches of salt
- A pinch or two of white pepper
- 3 star anise pods
Bring all of these ingredients to a boil, then simmer and gently lay in your salmon fillet, skin side down. Let simmer for 2 minutes, then turn off the heat and let cool. Once cool enough to touch, lift out your salmon, pull away and discard the skin. Using just your hands, gently flake apart the salmon and set aside.
For the tomatoes:
Cut your cherry tomatoes in half and place in medium-sized bowl. I use a paring knife to cut them one-by-one; that method using Tupperware caps is lazy and preposterous if you ask me. Drizzle the tomatoes thoroughly with olive oil and season liberally with salt and pepper. Let marinate for at least ten minutes.
As you assemble the salad later on, you probably won’t use the entire pint of tomatoes, unless you really like tomatoes. The next morning, put the remaining marinated tomatoes on a slice of ricotta-slathered sourdough toast.
For the ailoi:
Making an “aoili” (or, mayonnaise) requires nothing more than an egg yolk, some oil, some vinegar/lemon and a whisk. However, if you’re not up for the task, the aoili dressing can also just be made as follows:
- 1/3 cup good quality mayonnaise (Hellmann’s!!!)
- 1 teaspoon of dijon mustard
- 2-4 teaspoons of water
- pinch of black pepper
Whisk ingredients together. You want the dressing to be loose enough that it could pour onto the salad like a traditional dressing. Think the consistency of a good chicken gravy.
Assembling the salad:
A good Nicoise salad should be built on a large platter. Some twenty-somethings with tiny apartments don’t have the luxury of lots of lovely servingware, so if a large salad bowl is what you got, make it work!
1. Lay a single layer of separated lettuce leaves along the bottom of your bowl or dish. Using one leaf, dip into your dressing and, using it like a paint brush, paint the dressing onto each of the leaves in the bowl. Lay another single layer of leaves and repeat until all of your leaves are in the bowl/on the platter.
2. Next, because I like a warm element, quickly sautee the potatoes and string beans together in a skillet with a pad of butter and a generous pinch of salt and pepper. Set aside to let cool slightly while you continue to assemble salad.
3. Top the lettuce with as many tomatoes as you’d like in your salad. By no means should you be dumping in tomatoes (or other ingredients)– instead, place them strategically around the salad, as if you picked up a serving from that exact spot, you’d get each and every salad element without any tossing! Traditionally, there would also be olives– add those now if you’d like. I didn’t use any!
4. Hopefully the beans and potatoes are no longer too hot. Gently place them in… again, strategically around the salad to cover all spots! Drizzle on more dressing. I liked to use a fork to splash it on, almost like I’m splatter-painting.
5. Next, place in the eggs. I like to specifically cover each egg half with an anchovy fillet; the flavor combo is divine, but this certainly isn’t a rule you can’t break!
6. Finally, place the salmon in and around the salad. Et voila!
7. Serve with extra dressing on the side, but I like to save that for the end since the salad looks so pretty with the pink salmon riding on top, unmarked by aioli!