A hearty salad, one that isn’t just the start of a meal, but the entire meal, is one of my favorite dinners when the weather turns warmer.
It can be as simple as tossing some chopped lettuce and leftover protein with whatever you have in the vegetable bin. Or it can be complex and sophisticated, such as this Roasted Niçoise Salad With Fresh Tuna. A salad so elegant it could be the centerpiece of a fancy dinner party, it could be dinner for the family on a busy Wednesday night.
At its most basic, this French salad consists of tomatoes, hard-boiled eggs, Niçoise olives and anchovies, drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil. Often, though, it’s embellished with boiled baby potatoes, green beans and fresh or canned tuna, which puts it firmly in the main-dish category.
I like to take this “dinner” salad and give it a bit of a twist by roasting most of the ingredients. Roasting gives vegetables a deeper, more intense flavor. To get the best results, however, you’ll need to stagger your ingredients according to their cooking times.
In this case, the potatoes take the longest, so I start them first, along with a lemon that I’ve cut in half. Roasting the lemon with the potatoes accomplishes two key factors. The roasting process makes the lemon even juicier and more complex in flavor, without the sharpness and bitterness that fresh lemon juice can sometimes bring. All this translates into a more interesting vinaigrette that doesn’t overwhelm the other ingredients in the salad.
It also seeps into the potatoes as they’re cooking. That little bit of acid turns a plain roasted potato into a treasure you’ll hunt for with every bite.
Next up are green beans. Regular green beans will work well in this salad, but to give it an extra dose of “Frenchiness,” I use haricot vert, a French green bean that’s slimmer and more tender than your everyday green bean. They’re also more expensive, so it’s up to you to decide how much you want to spend on that elusive French nod.
Fresh tuna is really the star of the show. While I like rare or even raw tuna, for this salad my preference is medium-rare. You’ll be flaking the tuna into bite-sized pieces, so even a high-quality canned tuna will work in a pinch.
With the tuna, I also throw on the Niçoise olives that are iconic in this dish. They are black and small with just the right amount of brininess. You can find them in most supermarkets in the olive bar.
If roasting is such a good thing, why not roast all the ingredients? While it’s easy to understand why roasted butter lettuce is not optimal — unless you’re looking for a slimy, wilted mess — an argument could be made for roasting the tomatoes. But don’t. Roasting the cherry tomatoes would bring an intense sweetness to the salad that would muddy the other flavors. Leaving them raw gives the salad a lovely brightness.
Many Niçoise salads are composed, meaning their ingredients are separated and artfully displayed on the plate. While that’s impressive, I subscribe to the “chaos” presentation. In other words, I mix everything up, which gives it a Jackson Pollock quality.
Was that the look I was going for? Sure. After the first bite, no one will notice how it looks, anyway.
Meredith Deeds is a cookbook author and food writer from Edina. Reach her at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @meredithdeeds.