Saturday, May 30, 2009

Waiter, there's something in my... The Bistro Edition

Salade Provençale

Red choice tomatoes*, crispy Cos lettuce, crunchy French beans, slivers of garlic, shallots and black olives are complemented by sea salt capers, cucumber chunks and slices of marinated artichoke hearts. The salad is tossed in our very own Vinaigrette Niçoise and topped with pan-seared, line-caught tuna, drizzled with extra virgin olive oil, surrounded by Old Cotswold Legbar eggs durci à point** and served with crusty baguette bread.

If you thought that was a rather OTT and pretentious description of that old staple, Salade Niçoise, you'd be absolutely spot on. It is my first contribution to a blogging event called

"Waiter, there's something in my..."

This time, it was hosted by Johanna, the passionate cook, and the theme was "bistro food".

Jean Béraud, Au Bistro

According to Wikipedia (where I also got the above image), a bistro is a small, unpretentious restaurant, serving moderately priced simple meals, with an emphasis on foods that could be prepared in quantity and would keep over time: slow-cooked foods like stews.
Hmm, doesn't sound like the dishes you've seen on bistro menus lately? Thought not. This could easily change in the current economic climate (cf here), but up to now, I'd say one of the defining features of current bistro food is its emphasis on being " innovative"... or being clever with words... strong on the marketing side of things: the verbal and visual appeal.
The cuisine is 'eclectic' and 'fusion': baby vegetables may be glazed, caramelised or candied; there is nothing that can't be pureed and spiced with a hint of Asia, or laced with Wasabi for that Japanese touch; meat and fish is braised, roasted or pan-seared, or better still, served as a confit; it's de rigueur that salads are tossed and drizzled, and let's not forget that everything must be plated on white porcelain and feature citrus zest, a dipping sauce (preferably sweet chilli or gingered), or something that can be "frenched up". More often than not, they get it wrong, either in terms of spelling or the dish it self. When you order Chips & Aioli you're probably going to be served chips with a garlic flavoured mayonnaise. It's highly unlikely that German is ever going to be perceived as a sexy language (for food or otherwise), but should it ever happen: Pommes Rot-Weiss are just chips with both mayonnaise and ketchup. Don't say I didn't tell you.

In short, bistro menus read as if written by frustrated English graduates. It's a little known fact that this practice was first used at Essen University's mensa, where the epitome of the eternal student, a middle-aged, bearded man in Birkenstock, Germanistik im 15. Semester, spruced up even the most modest canteen offering to such an extent that you weren't just hivering and hovering as to which option to go for, you were positively drooling over all three 'menus'. Just thinking about their Westfälischer Sauerbraten mit Rosinen makes me quite peckish, and they certainly did do the best chips ever.
Ah, "There is
no seasoning quite so tasty as nostalgia"! Nigel Slater wrote this, and he did so, supremely fittingly, in a feature on Salade Niçoise.

Before I started to research it, I had no idea how much the 'true' ingredients are debated. Lettuce, tomatoes, cucumber, green beans, tuna, hard-boiled eggs, anchovies, no? Apparently not.

First, there is the shocking assertion, " salade niçoise ne contient pas de légumes cuits" from a Nice site. What, no green beans??!!
Then there is
Heyraud's 1903 recipe in La Cuisine à Nice, which stipulates " ...quartered artichoke hearts, raw peppers and tomatoes, black olives and anchovy fillets (...) parsley, chives, chervil and tarragon" (quoted from Slater, op cit), but not a single lettuce leaf or tuna flake!
On the other end of the scale, you find numerous recipes which even include potatoes!

I certainly didn't want to add those. After all, I had opted for a salad so that I could avoid "Event Fat Gain" (that's when you cook/bake something for a blogging event that contains far too many calories; EFG for short; I appropriated this term for my specific use from Rob Poulos). I also wanted to incorporate fresh tuna, even if, according to some, all Niçoise salads are made with canned tuna (cf here).

And let's face it, at the end of the day, whatever the arguments for or against ingredients and their treatment - the Niçoise site is wonderfully poetic about the dead colours of cooked vegetables versus the vivid colours of Southern France, which ispired Cezanne, Renoir and Matisse - they're often simply a reflection of individual taste. Nigel Slater leaves out green peppers because they don't agree with him. Ditto. Other people might omit black olives, or even, shock, horror, anchovies.

For the latter, I may have stumbled across the ideal solution. I agree with Slater: "To be true to its name this salad must be true to its geography - it must reek of olives, garlic, anchovy and tomatoes", but I found myself near enough out of anchovies. That is to say that my little jar contained only crumbly remains which would not have graced the salad. So I minced them into the vinaigrette. This method of incorporating the anchovies (anchovy paste would be an alternative) might work for people who do not like to bite into the fillets as such. It is one of the reasons why I called my dish Salade Provençale, and the Vinaigrette Niçoise.



tomatoes*, quarters

Cos lettuce




garlic, slivers

black olives

boiled eggs**

marinated artichoke hearts, sliced

green beans

olive oil
Dijon mustard
red wine vinegar
salt, pepper
parsley, chives
minced anchovies


1 fillet of fresh tuna, pan-seared and cut into thin slices.

Mix the salad ingredients with the vinaigrette, pile on to a plate, arrange the tuna slices so that they lean against the salad mound, garnish with the egg halves, black olives and chives, drizzle with some more olive oil.


Red Choice Tomatoes, exclusively for Waitrose, from the Isle of Wight, with the leaf emblem (Leaf = linking environment and farming)


Clarence Court Old Cotswold Legbar free range eggs, beautiful eggs with a touch of blue, available at Waitrose; cooked to a medium point (lit.: hardened)

The eggs provide proteins and vitamins, the tuna and anchovies contain omega-3 fat, and the olives and olive oil supply mono-unsaturated fat. All this plus fibre and antioxidants from the vegetables.

Thank you Johanna, for organising this event! I can't wait to see everyone else's take on this topic!


SarahKate said...

You're so right. Half the time at bistros I wish I could eat the words, they are more delicious than the food. Bill Bryson wrote a funny bit on this "tarting up" of menu language in his book Notes from a Small Island. Always makes me laugh.

Zabeena said...

Bryson is great, isn't he? I've read Notes from a Small Island but I can't remember the bit on menus, I must re-read it, it seems!

thepassionatecook said...

dead colours? haven't they heard of refreshing yet? i love my nicoise salad and am perfectly fine cooking my beans until they're softened but retain a bite... and they do look a vibrant green!
anyway, i love your post, i love the recipe, thanks for sharing this with us for WTSIM!

Zabeena said...

Yeah, actually, I didn't even think of that: most of my vegetables have vibrant colours because I like them steamed or stir-fried and still quite crunchy, and my beans were certainly bright green!
Oh, and thanks for the compliments!!

Paula Maack said...

Such a playful recipe and presentation! I love the fact that you took liberties with this dish.

As far as I am concerned, you chose the best of everything. Yum!


~ Paula

zlamushka said...

thanks for the salad dressing, great to hear it is this low-calorie thing... Thanks for participating T&T event. I hope you ll get a chance to come up with something delish for T&T Jue as well, the Blog of The Month is Meena of Hooked on Heat :-)

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