by Peter Moore
Our sunny September summer continues in the Bay Area, and there’s nothing like a big salad to enjoy at this time. I’ve always liked a Salade Niçoise and it’s pretty easy to put together—whether or not it’s particularly authentic is another question. A Niçoise is traditionally made with canned tuna, and while I’m not sure if it was a Niçoise they were making when it happened, canned tuna was responsible for the deaths of two women from Michigan who died of botulism in 1963.
In any event, the deaths dramatically affected the canned tuna industry–sales dropped 35% and led to the closure of the Washington Packing Company of San Francisco, where the tuna had been processed. The company’s factory at 2 Rankin Street in the Bayview District closed shortly after the incident and remained abandoned, though in recent years it became an amazing graffiti mecca, before it was finally demolished in 2009.
I was making a salad the other night and had decided to go with some good-looking tuna belly—a nice cut that’s cheap and flavorful—instead of canned. What brought the peril of botulism to mind was the tin of anchovies I brought out of the cupboard. Warped and distended, it definitely had a roundness that said in no uncertain terms, DO NOT EAT ME. I did not want to start another botulism scare, but anchovies are a canonical ingredient in a Salade Niçoise. How could I make it without anchovies? They add a salty, umami flavor that’s essential to the dish. I decided to go with a combination of koji and Serrano ham. The green beans came from Dirty Girl, the Yellow Finn potatoes from the potato people at the Saturday Grand Lake market, the Sungold cherry tomatoes came from Riverdog, the olives from Good Faith Farm, the spices from Oaktown Spice Shop, the garlic from Moon Fox Farm, and the greens from County Line.
For the dressing:
1 cup good olive oil
¼ cup rice wine vinegar
1 tbs Dijon mustard
½ tsp thyme
1 tsp black sesame seeds
1 tbs fresh tarragon, chopped fine
1 tbs Koji (if you’re not using anchovies)
1 shallot, minced
2 cloves garlic, mashed with salt
½ cup flat leaf parsley, chopped fine
For the salad:
¾ lb fresh tuna belly
½ lb of green beans
8 small Yellow Finn potatoes
½ basket of Sungold cherry tomatoes (from River Dog)
Large handful of mixed greens
Handful of olives (Niçoise traditionally, though the semi-dried from Good Faith Farms are great)
10 oil-cured anchovies (see notes below for substitution)
1 tbs capers (or caperberries if you have them)
3 tbs olive oil, for searing the tuna
¼ lb Serrano ham (or prosciutto), shredded, if you’re not using anchovies
For the hard-boiled eggs:
A bit of olive oil
¼ tsp Aleppo chili pepper
Make the dressing by adding the mustard, vinegar, thyme, sesame seeds, tarragon, shallot, garlic, parsley, and koji (if using) to a bowl, and whisk in the olive oil. Check for salt and pepper and add as necessary.
Trim and blanch the green beans in boiling water for four minutes, and shock in cold water to set the color. Using the same pan, boil the potatoes for 12 to 15 minutes, until a knife pierces the spud easily. Put them in cold water to stop cooking.
Get a non-stick pan good and hot, and add the olive oil. Sear the tuna belly for a few minutes on each side. You will notice that it sort of starts to break apart as the connective tissue between the pieces melts away. It can still be a little pink inside. Take it out of the pan and set aside.
There are a million different recipes for hard-boiled eggs in the world, and mine is one of them. Put a pot of water on to boil. Using a pushpin, put a little hole in the fat end of the egg. When the water boils, lower the eggs into the water and cook for 8 minutes. Remove immediately and drop into ice water. I’ve found that doing it this way makes peeling them a snap. Cut the eggs in half and dress with a sprinkle of olive oil and a bit of Aleppo chili and salt. Set aside to add to the salad at the last minute.
Take the green beans, potatoes, tomatoes, olives, capers, anchovies (if using) and ham (if using) in a big bowl, and toss with most of the dressing. Turn out into a nice shallow bowl that will hold all the ingredients.
Take the tuna, toss it in the bowl with the remaining dressing, and pile on top.
Put the eggs around the edge and serve.
Notes on ingredients:
If you don’t want to use anchovies, for whatever reason, I think my substitution of koji and Serrano ham works well.
Koji is fungus that is extensively used in Japanese cooking. It’s used to make miso, sake, and other fermented delights. When rice is inoculated with the koji and fermented, it makes a salty, umami-rich sort of sauce that can add depth and flavor to a variety of dishes. You can make it yourself—there are kits at many Asian groceries—or you can get it readymade and pureed.
Feel free to add some basil or other herbs. Don’t want to use the sesame seeds? Then don’t.
You can use sugar snap peas instead of green beans. You can also use some of the fine, dry-farmed tomatoes at the market this season instead of cherry tomatoes.
You can also try another fish. Salmon works well, or canned tuna (though be sure to get the good stuff). Skate could also be nice, and it’s cheap and currently in the markets.
Peter Moore lives, shops, and cooks in Berkeley, California. A co-founder of San Francisco’s Roxie Cinema, he worked in the film world for many years until the lure of food drew him into the world of professional cooking. Shortly thereafter, the lure of day shifts and a medical plan drew him out of restaurants, but his love of cooking remained. He is currently an intern at The Crucible in Oakland and an Operations and Development Associate for the SF Silent Film Festival.