That night, together, we were more than the sum of our parts.
A husband, a wife, a daughter, a son. Usually, on weeknights, we spin in our separate orbits, with our own interests, desires, events, activities, chores, work, projects, needs. But that night, the spinning stopped, and we focused on each other when we weren’t expecting to and the result was pure joy. Which is, of course, why people make such a fuss about family dinner. Because it can be a gorgeous, grounding thing. Sure, it can be hard and hair-raising. But it is a thing worth fighting for. A thing worth preserving when you can. A thing that can be composed, a thing that can bring composure. More
This dinner began with a piece of albacore, which we eat with some regularity. We can buy it fresh at our farmers market and it’s a favorite with everyone. I’m not sure what sent me down the composed salad path, but it might have had something to do with the week of composed salads we ate after Easter and something to do with the fact that I’m tired of the Korean style tuna we’ve been eating–delicious as it is. And it definitely had something to do with the fact that Finn doesn’t often like his foods all mixed up. So if I can separate ingredients without trouble, sometimes I do. For this salad, I made this easy dressing with what I had on hand. I didn’t have a lot of traditional Nicoise ingredients (potatoes, olives) but I had other things: a tender Boston bibb lettuce and some baby Romaine, hard boiled eggs, tomatoes, white beans, artichokes. I did a quick pan sear of the tuna, roasted the baby artichokes, steamed the green beans. I topped the tuna with the dressing and set out the other ingredients out on the counter with the dressing.
Here’s the very best part: kids get to choose what goes on their plates. I dressed each ingredient individually in the glass bowl, which is the traditional way to prepare a Nicoise in any case, and then set it on their plates. Caroline & I are together on this: when you can give kids choice and control, that’s always a good thing. This was Finn’s custom plate: tuna, white beans, green beans, lettuce. He came back for seconds. I think we also had some fresh bread.
The second best part: everything can stay at room temperature so it was ready to go for my husband and I later that evening. In one of those great moments when what makes the kids happy makes the grown up happy, we had a win/win kind of night. And: you can endlessly adapt this: substitute canned tuna or salmon, fresh snap peas or carrots….whatever you have on hand.
When I was in high school, my boyfriend and I went to Manhattan to see some show or other, but before that, we went to a classic French bistro for lunch. I suppose I ordered onion soup, and he ordered something else, and when we done ordering the server, who was an older, very severe, motherly kind of French woman looked sternly at us an asked with more than a little “And what will you have first?”
“Nothing,” we replied, not really understanding the concept of appetizer (beyond that plate of cheese and stone-wheat crackers we sometimes saw at parties), suburban kids that we were. She pursed her lips and raised her eyebrows and seemed absolutely to judge us. But a few minutes later she returned with two perfectly composed plates of salad. “You will eat this first,” she said. “It is Salad Nicoise.” And we did, and we thanked her, and it was delicious, and we understood. Since then, I’ve always loved a good Nicoise (in the style of Nice), which is a classic composed salad: rather than tossing the lot of vegetables together, each is tossed separately and arranged artfully on the plate. Or if you’re a real purist, the vegetables (and sometimes tuna) are arragned artfully and just drizzled with the vinaigrette. A good composed salad is a meal in itself. The classic ingredients for a Nicoise will vary, but are selected from tomato, green beans, boiled egg, tuna, red pepper, maybe lettuce. Debate rages about whether or not the vegetables should be cooked. A purist will say all should be crudite.
Basically, all you need is the following vinaigrette recipe and whatever fresh (or leftover) produce you have on hand. You can add fresh tuna, canned tuna, the rest of that grilled pork tenderloin you have lying around, that sausage you didn’t eat (see above), steak…or not.
With apologies to the French and the purists, Salad “Nicoise” works beautifully for a family for the following reasons:
On a busy night, you can whip up the dressing and toss it with whatever fresh vegetables you have around.
You can use up leftover green beans, corn, and all manner of meats swiftly and
The pretty plate makes it look like it’s not “leftover night” even though you know better
It can be vegetarian or not
You can use whatever you have on hand–whatever is seasonal, local, fresh around you
You can cook or not cook, depending on your family’s taste
Your picky eaters won’t complain about different food touching each other.
1 large garlic clove, minced and mashed to a paste with 1/2 teaspoon salt
Rounded 1/2 teaspoon anchovy paste
1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 1/2 teaspoons minced fresh thyme
1 1/2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh basil
Whisk together vinegar, shallot, mustard, garlic paste, and anchovy paste in a small bowl until combined well, then add oil in a slow stream, whisking until emulsified. Whisk in thyme, basil, and salt and pepper to taste.