This is Fish Party, a new series about tinned fish, friendship, and dyke domesticity. Today, I’m serving up an ode to the niçoise salad.
Look, we all love cheese plates and charcuterie boards. There are few things hotter than building a cheese plate for someone you’re into. Thinly sliced meats artfully arranged among olives, almonds, and a balanced mixture of hard and soft cheeses? That’s sexy. Salads, meanwhile, do not really have a sexy reputation. (If you’re a Bravo Dyke like myself, then perhaps the words “sexy salad” bring you back to a very specific time in Real Housewives Of New York‘s saga and now you are also thinking wait, didn’t Carole Radziwill run out of good summers like two summers ago? But I digress!) But salads are much better and more exciting than bland viral iterations suggest. And for something as artfully constructed, crowd-pleasing, and flavor-layered as a cheese plate, look no further than the niçoise, which I’m officially dubbing the salad of the summer. And yes, it’s sexy!!! We all know hot girls eat tinned fish, after all.
I mean, niçoise…even the word alone sounds hot, because French words always sound hot. Named for its origin city of Nice, France, the most essential components of a classic niçoise are tuna (or anchovies!), boiled eggs, and an assortment of vegetables. There are tons of ways to play with the basic equation for a niçoise, especially if you, like me, don’t care about following tradition. You can use raw or cooked vegetables or a combination. You can use canned or fresh tuna. You can sub tuna or anchovies for another tinned fish.
If you want to make a niçoise easier to serve or more on-the-go, you can serve it as a tossed salad, but if you’re going for that charcuterie-esque picture-perfect moment, a composed salad is the approach. A composed salad just means a salad where ingredients are arranged on a platter rather than mixed in together. And yes, it does make the salad logistically more complicated to serve in a dinner party setting, but it’s WORTH IT.
If you’re somewhat new to the niçoise, I recommend starting with a base recipe, like this Bon Appetit one and then building on it or experimenting from there. I’ve made tuna niçoise twice in the past few weeks. Here’s what went into each of them:
Tuna Niçoise 1: Summer Date Night Edition
It’s a stressful summer for my girlfriend and I. Mainly because we’re moving soon, and that’s always stressful. But for other reasons, too. Work stuff, a lot of moving parts with both of us having to travel for various writing things, dog care logistics. You get it. It has been a nice summer, too, full of campfires and lakes and rivers and every body of water you can imagine, really. And we’ve seen so many friends, made some new ones, too.
But there hasn’t been a lot of time for date nights, especially easy, quiet, but still romantic ones at home. And I’m still new enough to living in Florida that the blurry lines between seasons confuse me. How do you celebrate summer when it feels like summer 75% of the year and also when summer here actually means a ton of rain and soaring temperatures, so the kinds of summer activities I’m used to from up north aren’t always logistically possible?
Well, I built an entire day around eating tuna niçoise one weekend, and it accomplished two things at once: It felt like a true summer day and a hot date night all at once.
AND I DIDN’T EVEN HAVE TO LEAVE MY HOME.
Okay, to be fair, I have a big outdoor pool with a view of the bay in my building, so that does give me an advantage when celebrating summer without leaving my home, but anyway! Tuna niçoise, for me, conjures images of lounging on pool towels, pulling slick wine bottles by their necks out of ice buckets, applying sunscreen to someone’s bare back. It’s so simple (and cheap!) to make, and yet it feels like something one might eat poolside at an Italian villa, accompanied by a crisp rosé or something spritzy. Yes, I know the salad is French! I’m just telling you how it makes me feel. I’m talking real Call Me By Your Name hours, okay?
So we spent the day at the pool with books and drinks and tumblers of cold water that went warm fast in the Florida sun. We reapplied sunscreen, often. We barely read the books we brought because we kept setting them down to talk to each other.
After a full day in the sun, I rarely like to make anything too complicated for dinner. Our go-tos after beach days and extra-long pool days are usually ordering in pizza or Greek or Cuban food. Or I make something simple like a charcuterie board or something with tinned fish. On this particular day, I’d been planning the picture-perfect tuna niçoise in my head for hours. I knew it would technically take time — things that involve this much chopping and arranging usually deceptively do even when there’s very minimal cook-time — but it would be easy work. I made spritzes and had my girlfriend put on a playlist called “French café” because, even though I was still feeling more Italian villa than a French vibe, I wanted to lean into the niçoise.
Here’s what’s going on in this salad.
I started with a base of romaine leaves. I like to use leaves from closer to the center of the head so that they’re a bit smaller and crunchier pieces. I spread those on the bottom of a large plate, which is about all you need in terms of serving platter if making a niçoise for just two.
I boiled baby potatoes in water for about 15 minutes, skins on. I like to try to buy the smallest baby potatoes I can find so that they’re truly bite-sized (and fit on the plate). After the 15 minutes, I plopped them in a bowl of ice water to cool. Then I drained them and tossed them with salt and fresh dill.
I medium-boiled a few eggs in the same pot of water I did the potatoes in and then also blanched some green beans. I like to get the very thin, pre-snipped green beans that come in a bag at Publix (sometimes they’re just labeled “French beans”).
I also quick-pickled some red onions.
The dressing I make is an expansion of the Bon Appetit dressing used in that aforementioned base niçoise recipe. In addition to the base of olive oil, lemon juice, dijon, and honey, I also add finely grated ginger for a little kick and have also experimented with adding hot honey for an even bigger kick (highly recommend! a niçoise is not at all known for spice, but I’m always injecting spice into things).
Then it’s just a matter of chopping and arranging! In addition to those cooked elements above, I did chopped cherry tomatoes (the multicolor ones are my preference!), chopped cucumber, and pickled asparagus that I did not make myself! It just came from a jar! Grocery store-bought jarred pickled things are my secret weapon for a niçoise.
And then, the star. The tuna herself. Unsurprisingly given my proclivity for tinned and jarred fish, I went with a store-bought jarred option rather than fresh tuna. I used the Tonnino olive oil-packed tuna fillets and added some of the oil from the jar into my dressing for a little extra fishiness. Some people pre-dress the salad but I like to leave it undressed and have a little pourable dish (in this case, I used a creamer) of dressing next to the serving plate so that people can dress their own plates.
And there you have it! A plateful of veggies and fish and eggs that is very photogenic and the perfect ending to an all-day pool day where you forget about work and moving stress for just a little bit and cook yourself in the sun. We had a natural white wine served in coupe glasses and lit a candle to really ramp up the date night vibes. Afterward, we watched two of the six Thin Man movies.
Tuna Niçoise 2: Mississippi Woods Edition
I’ll keep this one short, because I’m writing it from my unwinding trip in the Mississippi woods with my girlfriend and our friend who we always have the loveliest and food-filled times with (seriously, I think half of all the best meals I’ve had in the past couple years were with this friend). On Tuesday, we dragged plastic adirondack chairs into the river outside the cabin our friend rented and sunk their legs into the rocky river floor. We sat in the river on those chairs for hours, watching the way sunlight danced on a tree’s limbs, always on high alert for a sighting of the large blue heron that sometimes graces the river with her presence. We took a break from the river for lunch: tiny sandwiches arranged on a wood board and potato chips with clam dip and, for a sweet finish, spiced peaches. Then we went back to the river.
At the end of all of it, I made a niçoise.
It was more or less the same as the one from before, with a few additions and changes. There was no fresh dill at the grocery store we stopped at on the way to the cabin, so I dressed the potatoes with parsley and salt instead. In addition to pickled asparagus, I found pickled okra. I forgot to buy vinegar, so our red onions were raw — bitier and crunchier and still good, just different. I still went with Tonnino for the tuna but this time tried the jalapeño variation (again, I’m always looking for heat). A niçoise fit for three hungry river rats couldn’t possibly fit on one plate, so I broke it up and plated most of the components on a wood board and the potatoes, eggs, and green beans on the nicest plate I could find in the mishmash of dishes at the cabin. In place of a creamer, I found a small pourable measuring cup buried in a cabinet for the dressing. The dogs put on their cutest begging faces to ask for tuna, and we threw them cucumber slices, and they seemed happy enough with the compromise. We opened a bottle of white, and it warmed quickly, because even though we’re many hours north of Miami, it’s hot everywhere right now. But the river is a cool escape. And so is a crunchy, fresh bite off a niçoise platter.