There's something about a warm, summery evening (even if that summery evening happens the first week of May) that calls out for Salad Niçoise. And lest you think I am making Baseless Sweeping Culinary Pronouncements, I present empirical proof: a few days ago I ran out to the grocery store to get some last-minute Salad Niçoise ingredients, and ran into a friend shopping for the exact same thing. There you have it. It's Salad Niçoise season.
As I've mentioned several times before, I'm fond of salads that push the definition of the genre. Why settle for lettuce and cucumber and a crumble of cheese? The world is your salad bar! Salad Niçoise is another entry into the composed salad genre, an assemblage of substantial cooked (potatoes, eggs), raw (lettuce, radishes) and blanched (asparagus) elements, presented together with some piquant additions (olives, anchovies). As none other than Julia Child poetically attested, "A bountiful arrangement in bowl or platter is so handsome to behold that I think it a cruel shame to toss everything together into a big mess." I heartily agree.
Most Salad Niçoise variations feature tuna, either seared and sliced or simply flaked from the can. I chickened out at the last minute from cracking open a friend's jar of home-canned tuna, due to my own botulism phobia, but the salad was hearty enough without it. As you can see, Salad Niçoise is quite forgiving. I blanched a handful of yay-they're-finally-in-season asparagus, but you can easily substitute green beans, and capers add a piquant note if you don't fancy anchovies. You can even slice up some not-so-French-but-oh-so-delicious buttery chunks of avocado, or scatter some punchy little tomatoes if they're in season. Because a Salad Niçoise, — like a warm, sunny evening — is going to be fairly lovely, no matter what you make of it.
3 good-sized waxy potatoes, or several handfuls small new potatoes
~12 spears asparagus, tough ends snapped off
several handfuls butter lettuce, washed and dried
a few radishes, thinly sliced
1 minced shallot, or 1 clove garlic, pressed
1 tablespoon vinegar, preferably a mild one, like sherry
juice of 1/2 lemon (optional — you can add another splash vinegar instead)
~3 tablespoons olive oil
hefty dollop mustard
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh herbs — tarragon is especially nice
crusty bread and cheese, to round out the meal
Place the potatoes in a large saucepan, cover with salted water, and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat until it's just high enough to maintain a simmer, and cook until the potatoes are tender but not mushy (~10-20 minutes, depending upon the size of your potatoes). Remove the potatoes with a slotted spoon (leaving the water in the pot), and let cool slightly.
While the potatoes are cooking, hard-boil the eggs: Place in a small saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a boil over high heat, then cover with a lid and turn off the heat. Let sit in the hot water for 10 minutes, then drain and cover with cold water too cool off.
When the potatoes are done, bring the pot of water back to a boil, and add the asparagus. Let cook just a minute or two, until bright green, then remove, drain, and shock with cold water.
To make the dressing: place the shallot or garlic, vinegar, and lemon juice in a small jar with a tight-fitting lid (canning jars work wonderfully). Let sit for a minute or two to mellow, then add the remaining ingredients. Shake until emulsified, then taste and adjust as needed.
To assemble the salad: Cut the potatoes into thick slices (or just halve them if they're new potatoes), and peel and halve the eggs. Lay the lettuce down on a serving platter, then top with all of the elements, each given its own neat little section of the platter. Give the dressing another good shake, then pour over the salad (the warm potatoes will do an especially good job of drinking it in), and season with salt and pepper as needed. Serve, ideally on a warm summer evening, with some crusty bread and cheese.