Wednesday, July 28, 2010

True North Niçoise Salad

We just got back from a truly wonderful trip to Alaska; at long last we visited our friends Chris and Lynne in Anchorage and saw why they have made this spectacular state their home. Chris and Lynne, you may recall from an earlier post, helped re-christen the unfortunately named "pickled black-eyed peas" (which are now known to us as "Crack-eyed Peas") while we were on a trip to Joshua Tree earlier in the year. They then introduced the peas as the "official recovery food for the Harvard Cross-country ski team." They are travel companions made in heaven, and we knew we were destined to have some fun on this trip!

One of the interesting things about being in a place where it stays light all the time (it turns dark grey from about 12 a.m. to 2 a.m. in Alaska in the summertime, otherwise, it's all daylight, all the time) is that you are energized to do a lot more stuff than you normally would. Here is how we kicked off the trip: Arrived Friday night pretty darned close to midnight, and yes, it was still pretty light out. Our excellent friends picked us up and drove us back to their house. Joel organized his biking gear and installed his own pedals on a borrowed racing bike. At about 6:00 the next morning, friends collected him and the bike and drove him many miles out into the wilderness, where he competed in the fifty mile event of the Fireweed 400. After the rest of us arrived to cheer him on to victory (he came in second) we all donned crampons and climbed the Matanuska glacier. Chris and Lynne are such hardcore adventurers that they had enough crampons to accommodate themselves, Joel, me, Johanna, and Johanna's BFF, Katy, who had joined us on the trip. After a dinner overlooking the glacier at the Longrifle Lodge, surrounded by multiple examples of local taxidermy, we drove the long way home, and slept very well, despite the ever-present light. The next day: repeat, with variations!

Being insanely active for 17 hours a day means that once again, creativity must come into play when planning dinner. On day 2, while Lynne worked a 13 hour shift at the neonatal intensive care unit, the rest of us went for a walk in a nature reserve, had a quick lunch, then went walking on the mudflats at the Turnagain Arm - until Joel lost a boot to the quivering muck. From there, we went for a hike in the mountains... Are you sensing a pattern here? Coming home from the third hike of the day, I knew that I really must plan a good - and fast - dinner; Lynne deserved something delicious and a big glass of wine when she came home from work.

Fortunately, one of the culinary tricks I have up my sleeve is Salade Niçoise, a hearty French composed salad, comprised of greens dressed with a Dijon mustard vinaigrette, surrounded by little piles of other tasty dressed vegetables, olives, hard boiled eggs, thinly sliced sweet red onion, and topped with a generous hunk of best quality conserved tuna in olive oil. Typically, the vegetables include small, tender green beans, the little waxy potatoes called fingerlings, ripe tomatoes, and some small, sweet beets. However, when pressed for time or ingredients, you can go with just the salad greens, tuna, eggs, olives, and sliced red onion. The different components are harmonious with each other, while keeping things new and interesting in flavor and texture so that the palate never tires. A loaf of good French bread, a good bottle of wine, and life is looking fine.

And what luck! A co-worker of Chris' had given them several gorgeous jars of home-conserved salmon, some smoked, some plain. What a delicious variation on a classic theme!

When we are home, we like to serve the salad with a nice dry French or Spanish rose; sadly, the only pink thing we could find at the local Safeway was white Zinfandel - not an acceptable substitute. However, the Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay we were able to get went down very well with the salad.

I love this salad, and all of its variations. The salmon version was so good, it got me fantasizing about trying to set up some bartering with Chris' co-worker.... or maybe catching and smoking and canning my own salmon.... So, by special request from Lynne, here is my version of Salade Niçoise.

True North Salade Niçoise

Serves 2 for Dinner

Serve with a good quality French bread

For Salad:

1/2 pound or so of fresh, best quality salad greens
2 hardboiled eggs (see below for never fail instructions)
1/2 of a small sweet red onion, sliced as thinly as possible
2 medium fresh, ripe tomatoes, cut in wedges (if in season. If not, leave out.)
1 - 7 oz jar or can best quality tuna in olive oil, such as A's Do Mar, or best quality canned salmon, or fresh tuna or salmon, pan-fried, baked, broiled, poached, or grilled

Niçoise olives for garnish
Fresh ground black pepper for garnish

Optional: boiled waxy potatoes, such as fingerlings, green beans, roasted or boiled small red beets

For Dressing:

1 TB best quality red or white wine vinegar
1 TB Dijon mustard
2 large cloves garlic, minced or put through a garlic press
2 large pinches sea salt
1/4 tsp fresh ground black pepper, or to taste
5 TB best quality extra virgin olive oil

To hard boil the eggs:

Put the eggs in a small, heavy saucepan, and cover them with cold water. Bring to a rolling boil over medium heat, boil for 1 minute, then turn off heat, cover the pan, and let sit for 15 minutes. Remove the eggs from the hot water and plunge them into an ice bath. This technique results in PERFECT hard-boiled eggs, with beautifully yellow, solid yokes. The ice water plunge stops the cooking and helps the shell release from the eggs. When the eggs have cooled, gently crack the shells and peel them. Slice them in half.

While the eggs are cooking, make the vinaigrette. Whisk all of the ingredients together in a large salad bowl until the dressing is emulsified. Remove a few spoonfuls to reserve for dressing the eggs and other vegetables. (If you will also be making the optional potatoes, etc. you will need more dressing. Reserve more dressing, and dress each different vegetable separately.)

When all of the ingredients are ready, whisk the salad dressing again in the bowl, and toss the greens in the dressing, adding enough so that the greens are well, but not over dressed. Plate all of the greens on two large dinner plates. Place an egg around the greens on each plate, along with the tomato wedges and about 10 olives. Scatter the greens with the red onion. Place the tuna on top of the greens. Spoon the reserved dressing onto the eggs. Grind a generous helping of black pepper over all, and serve with bread and a nice glass of wine.

Note: French bread will taste fresh from the oven if you heat it briefly in a low temperature oven. We keep a supply of Acme baguettes in our freezer, and reheat them for a few minutes at 200 degrees F in our toaster oven. Delightful!