Just use everything


Most likely it's been one of those little skirmishes which has passed you by, but, believe it or not, Salade Nicoise is a controversial dish. It's funny what people will find time to fight about.

The controversy arises over what the salad should, or should not, contain.

Purists defend their particular composition of ingredients and dressing by calling their salad La Vrai Salade Nicoise, suggesting that anyone else's cannot be true to the tradition of Nicois cookery.

Claudia Roden, in Mediterranean Cookery, quotes a "formidable elderly woman", Catherine-Helene Barale, a Nicois restaurateur, as saying the salad must contain only raw vegetables, which means that you can only use the tiniest broad beans, otherwise they would need to be cooked.

Barale also uses lots of thinly sliced green pepper, but a few years later, Simom Hopkinson pleads that a good Salade Nicoise should not include strips of raw green pepper. Jane Sigal, in Backroad Bistros, Farmhouse Fare, runs a recipe from Mimi of Les Arcades bistro which has red pepper instead, and throws in some sliced fennel for good measure.

All of which proves that fighting about what should or should not be in Salade Nicoise is a waste of energy. Better, instead, to focus on a simple fact about the great composed salad: if you want to prepare a summer salad which will feed everyone with just one dish, and which can be prepared in advance, then Salade Nicoise is a godsend. The salad works best, I find, when you adopt the kitchen sink approach: just include everything.

Because it is a dish that is more about combining than cooking, it is as straightforward a feast as you can find. If you do use cooked ingredients, then they are cooked in advance, the dressing is made in advance and, at the last minute, you simply arrange everything on a large, handsome platter, drizzle over the dressing, and you have nothing less than a feast.

And so, here is my Salade Nicoise. Purists will disdain the use of roasted peppers, and some might baulk at cooking fresh tuna, but the truth of the matter is that none of these ingredients is discordant: they all work together beautifully. My version will feed about four adults, so if you are having a bigger bash, simply increase the volume of ingredients.

Lots of well chilled wine is essential, and I actually like to drink cool red wine with Salade Nicoise - to hell with the purists.

Salade Nicoise

2 firm red peppers

6oz fine green beans

1lb small waxy potatoes

2-3 boiled eggs

3-4 tomatoes

1 head romaine lettuce

half cup black olives

8 anchovy fillets

12oz piece tuna or 1 can white tuna

half cucumber

1 red onion, sliced into fine rings and separated

basil leaves

Dressing: 1 clove garlic

1 tab red wine vinegar

6 tabs extra virgin olive oil

sea salt and pepper

1. First of all roast the peppers. You can do this over a gas flame, brushing the peppers lightly with olive oil and turning them as the skin blackens, or cook in a very hot oven until the skin is completely blackened (the more blackened the skin, the easier it is to peel off). Put the peppers into a plastic bag and tie it tightly: the steam will help you to slip the skins off. When they are cool, peel off the skins and remove the seeds and stalk, reserving any juices which run from the pepper to be mixed into our salad dressing. Cut the roasted peppers into thin strips.

2. Scrub the potatoes and cook in boiling salted water until ready, about 20 minutes. When cooked, plunge them into cold water to arrest the cooking and to allow you to peel them if you wish to do so (I am happy to leave the skins on new potatoes). While they are still warm, slice them and dress them lightly with some of the dressing, as they will absorb it and be extra flavourful.

3. For the dressing: crush the clove of garlic with a sprinkling of salt to a fine paste (easily done with a mortar and pestle) then whisk in the tablespoon of red wine vinegar. Pour the 6 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil in a steady stream, whisking all the time. Correct seasoning. With a tea spoon, drizzle some of the dressing over the sliced potatoes and reserve.

4. Top and tail the green beans and cook them in boiling salted water for about 2 minutes, but be sure that they are properly cooked. When ready, plunge them immediately into cold water to arrest the cooking. If you can't get green beans, then broad beans are a good substitute, and you can also use cooked artichoke hearts - simply cut the hearts into quarters.

5. Place the eggs in a sauce pan with cold water to cover. Bring the water slowly to a boil, and when it reaches a boil, turn the heat down to a simmer and cook for a further 2 minutes. Then remove immediately from the heat and place the eggs under cold running water to arrest the cooking. This technique will give you cooked eggs with a still-slightly soft yolk and a tender white.

6. Dry the piece of tuna, paint it with a little olive oil and scatter salt and pepper on top. Cook it over high heat on a grill pan (or the barbie) for about four minutes each side. It must still be pink in the centre: if it is grey throughout it is overcooked and will be too dry. Remove from the heat, and drizzle on some olive oil and a squeeze of lemon juice. Allow it to rest.

7. Peel and thinly slice the cucumber, arrange it on a plate and scatter salt over it to draw out the water.

8. Separate and wash and dry the romaine leaves. Slice the tomatoes into thin wedges. Drain and rinse and dry the cucumber slices. Separate and drain the anchovy fillets, and cut each fillet in half. If using salted anchovies, rinse and fillet them, and cut each fillet in half.

9. Make the salad: on a large platter, place the romaine leaves on the base, then arrange everything as you like: slices of potato; black olives; cucumber; strips of red pepper and anchovies; tomato wedges; fine beans; cooked eggs cut in half; slice the tuna and arrange the pieces throughout the platter; the thinly sliced onion scattered over. Have fun with the design! Finally, spoon the dressing over the ingredients, and sprinkle the sliced basil leaves over the top.