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Salade Niçoise

I went to college in Santa Barbara, California, a location that brought me into frequent contact with the sea and what comes out of it. Seals serenaded us at night, when we walked along the sea. Beaches beckoned and tidal pools delighted. We could go down to the pier and wait for the crab boats, where 5 crabs were $1, and the fishermen would steam them for you. Abalone was still readily available and not expensive. And there were great sea shell stores.

One day, a friend and I were at a local grocery store shopping for sandwich fixings. My friend asked me which tuna she should buy, albacore or chunk light. Before I could answer, a deep voice behind us said, "By all means, get albacore." We turned to face a spectacularly beautiful man with white hair, blue eyes, and a deep tan. He was dressed in exactly what you'd expect a fishing boat captain to wear—black pea coat over a black turtle neck, with a Greek fishermen's cap, also black. He explained that he was an albacore tuna fisherman, and he went on to tell us about how good these tuna are, how clean the water was where they were caught, how the catching of albacore didn't endanger dolphins (they are caught with hook and line, one at a time, rather than in nets). I'm sure we were impressed with the information. However, what was running through my mind was, "He has to be an actor. This is California. They wouldn't let anyone that gorgeous go out on a fishing boat, would they?" Apparently they would. He really was a fisherman. I'm not sure my friend believed me when, after he finally tipped his hat and headed down the aisle, I said I had intended all along to recommend albacore.

In fact, for a good part of my youth, I was unaware of the existence of any tuna other than white, solid-pack albacore. When I did become aware of differences, I still preferred albacore, and still do. Fortunately, I now have Omega 3 fatty acids as an excuse for buying this slightly more expensive variety of tuna (chunk light doesn't have nearly the same amounts of Omega 3s). I have gone on to discover and enjoy blackened or grilled ahi tuna, but for me albacore is still number one for sandwiches and salads.

Like alcohol, algebra, and alfalfa, the term albacore comes from an Arabic word, al-bakurah, meaning "the albacore." Albacore is just one of several varieties of tuna, a family of large fish closely related to mackerel. Tunas are found throughout the warmer waters of the world. The biggest tuna is the bluefin, which can grow to 1,500 pounds or more. Its dense, red flesh is popular in Japan and Africa, but it is not a favorite in the U.S. Yellowfin (known as ahi in Hawaii) and bigeye can grow to 400 pounds. These two are highly valued for sashimi. Albacore, relatively petite at 80 pounds, is the only tuna that is labeled "white meat tuna." Skipjack is the smallest of the commercial tunas, growing to about 50 pounds.

Tunas are interesting from more than a purely culinary viewpoint. They have no pumping mechanism to pass water over their gills, so they must swim to breathe. Hence, tunas never rest. Their bodies are remarkably streamlined, and they move with a speed that made people wonder at one time if they were warm-blooded. They are not warm-blooded, but they have a complex heat-exchange system that preserves body heat, enabling them to act almost as if they were.

Tuna has been popular for a long time. Tuna bones have turned up in northern European kitchen middens dating from the Upper Paleolithic era to the Iron Age. Herring and cod were also popular this far back, but neither of these enter the Mediterranean. Tuna does. Tuna was being captured in the Mediterranean region during Neolithic times. The Phoenicians caught tuna in traps 3,000 years ago, and tuna was probably the most important food fish of the classical world. In ancient Greece, the tuna was consecrated to the goddess Diana. In Carthage, tuna was served at wedding banquets. The Romans valued tuna, and Pliny suggested that the Golden Horn was so called because of the abundant tuna.

There are few things more satisfying than a good tuna salad sandwich. But once in a while, it's fun to try a new spin on the tuna salad formula. This tuna salad is from Nice, France. It's more like a "real" salad, with lettuce and dressing. As for the anchovies in the dressing, don't worry about them, even if you don't like anchovies. These form a background note, a piquant flavor element, as they do in Caesar salad and green goddess dressing. I've never eaten an unaccompanied anchovy, but I value them as an additive to recipes, and I'm crazy about this dressing. Think of anchovies as salt or Worcestershire sauce. You don't eat those alone, either, but they add great flavor. (And, in fact, one of the primary flavor elements of Worcestershire sauce is anchovy!) Actually, I've just inspired myself to new research with that observation—because the Romans used anchovies for making seasoning sauce, and the word "chester" or "cester" in an English town name means it was a Roman camp at one time, so I wonder if Worcestershire sauce is a descendent of Rome's favorite anchovy sauce. Hmmm.

Well, regardless of whether I find any confirmation for that theory, this is a great salad dressing and a lovely salad for summer entertaining, even if you're only entertaining yourself. Good French bread would complete the meal. Enjoy.

Salade Niçoise

Lettuce to line the bowl

2 tomatoes, quartered

1 cup cooked, cut green beans

2 small red potatoes, cooked and diced

3 hard-cooked eggs, quartered

1 onion, thinly sliced

12 small, black, Mediterranean olives

1 small can solid-pack albacore tuna in water

Parsley to garnish (optional)


1 large clove garlic, sliced

6 anchovy fillets

¼ tsp. salt

⅛ tsp. freshly ground black pepper, or to taste

Generous pinch of sugar

1 tsp. dried chervil

¼ tsp. dried basil

1 Tbs. vinegar (white wine or balsamic are good options)

7 Tbs. olive oil (extra virgin, if possible)

This type of salad is known as a "composed salad," because one tries to arrange the ingredients in a visually attractive composition, with lettuce as foundation, tuna in the center, and vegetables artistically situated around it. It can be created in a large bowl or on individual serving plates. It is then drizzled with the dressing, tossed, and served.

To prepare the dressing, put all the ingredients in a blender or food processor, and process until all is combined, and you can no longer identify any single component. (If you don't have a food processor, this would have been made originally with a mortar and pestle. It's still an option.)


To make this really authentic, you would want to use Niçoise olives. However, any small, tangy black olives will do, including those from Greece or Italy. And to be perfectly honest, it's okay to use the ordinary black olives you find at the grocer, if those are your preference.

In restaurants, I've seen this salad with quartered artichoke hearts or sliced green pepper added, though often, with these additions, it is listed as "Mediterranean Salad." As with all recipes, there are as many versions as there are cooks.

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