The degree to which this – a Salade Nicoise, sans tomates – is, in fact, a Nicoise salad remains debatable. What is incontrovertible is that, while I won’t eat out-of-season tomatoes, I’m not waiting around until next summer for the league leader in salads-as-meals, and this, my Jack Frost version extant, still tastes damn good.
But first: If I’m to degrade a classic, what, precisely, defines the original? I’ve eaten dozens, possibly hundreds, of versions over the years, some in Paris, several in Nice itself, and at faux bistros everywhere from New York City to San Francisco; probably, I’ve gnawed through at least one frost-bitten affront from an airline kitchen at 30,000 feet, although I’ve mercifully forgotten its specifics; and I’ve made any number of hackneyed and typically inadequate wannabes in my own kitchen, inevitably omitting some essential ingredient, using the wrong sort of tuna, or – today’s apostasy and the subject of this heretical holiday post – constructing one in early winter, with tomatoes served only from memory.
The thing of it is, for all those salads eaten, cookbooks consulted, and time spent chopping, the only true constants are these: First and foremost, while a truly fine Salade Nicoise elevates simple cooking to the transcendent, even a modestly proximate imitation can be, while perhaps not a true Nicoise, a very, very good salad in its own right; second, no matter where you go to order or how you make them, no two versions will ever be precisely the same; and last but certainly not least, a chilled Vin Rose will make an unimpeachable companion.
That being said, there are still certain Rules, without which you may still make a decent – even excellent – salad, but you will not, in their absence, have made a Salade Nicoise. However, to miss the consummate dish for The Rules of its construction is to mistake the map in your hand for the ground beneath your feet. No, in order to appreciate a truly classic dish, one must develop a sense of why The Rules are what they are, of the cultural and regional culinary context that encouraged what began life as various and even conflicting ideas to converge and eventually to crystallize into a single canonized tradition. And while there is remarkably little congruity as to what constitutes the One, True Version of this magnificent salad, the central facet – as with the best of Provencal cooking and, I suppose, a healthy philosophy of food more generally – must always be the freshness, purity, and proximal roots of its ingredients.
Try this exercise in cliche: Stand at the battered ceramic basin of a postcard-countrified kitchen somewhere along the Cote d’Azur; listen to the bob and creak of fishing boats nestled in the port below; squint at the afternoon sunlight as it dances obliquely off the cerulean sea beyond the harbor; smell the salty tang of the air; and watch the humidity coalesce into condensate as it traces lazy rivulets down the cool, clear glass of a bottle of rose-hued wine. Wander on unsure turista feet over the cobbles and through the stalls of an open-air market, wave off the low cloud cover of harsh Gitanes settling like San Franciscan fog over the sidewalks, and choose a perfect baguette entirely at random. Now, compose a salad, not just a salad but a salad-as-parable, a plate which encompasses every vacation on the French Mediterranean, real, celluloid, or merely imagined – a salad inextricable from the city of Nice itself, the very essence of the place collected and transported via the tines of a fork into a mouthful of acid, oil, and crunch. Which blueprint would you use, which rules would you follow, for the construction of such a salad? And would they allow you such a salad in winter, without tomatoes?
For my part, I made the thing as I believe it should be made, minus les tomates. I won’t say that I made a proper Salade Nicoise, but I will say that I ate an awfully good, if improper, approximation in the middle of December… but more on that, and The Rules, tomorrow.