Yesterday, before the sun had risen too high in the sky and pushed the temperatures into the stratosphere, I wandered down to the garden, toddler in tow. As the 18-month old chased the chickens (bock-bocks as he calls them) in and around the cypress trees, I examined the various plants to see if any were bearing fruit.
Two of our ten tomato plants are laden with green orbs, and the two jalapeno bushes are weighted down with inch-and-a-half long pods. The butternut squash vines are in full bloom, and many of the blossom ends are beginning to swell with the promise of delicious golden flesh. Our infant asparagus patch has successfully gone to seed, and our cucumbers are rife with fuzzy little fingerlings. The lacy tops of the rainbow carrots are waving in the breeze, and the melons are creeping along the ground stealthily, their little yellow flowers smiling smugly in the sun.
As I redirected the melon vines away from the cucumber patch (they are planted three rows apart in an attempt to avoid the dreaded melon-cucumber marriage, but those melons are sneaky little suckers), I glanced over at the two half-rows of heirloom french bush beans that we had planted. I had been out the day before, tackling the invasion of weeds that had propagated over the previous two weeks, but I hadn’t taken the time to notice the details of the various fruit-bearing plants. Yesterday, though, I was struck by the abundance of long, thin haricots verts dangling daintily from their thread-thin stems. I began picking the beans from the plant closest to me, and made my way along the row, carefully pushing aside leaves to find the vibrant green pods hiding among the blooms and branches, taking care not to dislodge any of the unripened flowers. They become camouflaged among the stems of the plant, so it took me a couple of passes to get all of them. By the time I had gone around the rows two or three times, I had nearly a pound of beans.
Nestled close to the ground in the adjacent row was a beautiful head of red leaf lettuce. As I reached down to snap the curly leaves close to their base, the verdant beans cradled carefully in the hem of my sun dress, chickens clucking softly as they hid from their tiny tenacious hunter among the cypress branches, a seed of an idea was planted in my brain as a memory unfolded.
During the summer of 1996, I traipsed around Europe with some friends. We met in Paris, and after four days in the city of lights, we made our way to Nice. Although we only spent one day on the Cote d’Azure before heading to Italy, we tried to make the most of our time there. After our overnight train ride from Paris, we had visions of lying languidly on the beach, soaking up the golden rays of the riviera sun.
We were sorely disappointed to discover that the beach was comprised of rocks, turning dreams of lazy sunbathing into a slightly painful reality. After people-watching for a few hours, making a half-hearted attempt to play in the surf, and being amused as a plump Botticelli-esque Frenchwoman with bronzed skin immodestly removed her bikini bra and bared her topless torso skyward, we made our way back to our tiny hotel and changed clothes. Those hours in the sun had induced a notable hunger in all of our bellies, so we wandered down to the seaside in search of repast.
We discovered a little restaurant that seemed promising and went in. Up until this point, we had been subsisting on little more than tourist food: an occasional pizza, more than our fair share of Macdo, bread, cheese, fruit and, of course, wine. The thought of an actual meal in an actual restaurant, cost be damned, was exciting. We decided this would be our one splurge for the trip, so we pooled our money and had a feast. I don’t remember everything we ordered, although I think there were buttery mussels and sweet scallops in there somewhere. What I do remember clearly is that it was one of the best meals of my life. Sitting by the sea, enjoying the company of my traveling companions, sating our hunger with delicious fruits de mer, it was one of the defining moments of my life. I saw with perfect clarity the power and importance of gathering for a meal with good friends or family. When you combine good food and good people, the experience becomes more than the sum of its parts. I remember that meal not so much for the food we ate, but for the feeling that we had around that table, in that time and place – the water outside, the french couple at the next table who brought their dog and fed him from their plates, the flowing wine, the delicious (albeit indescribable) cuisine, the company. Magic.
As I stood there in my garden yesterday, my little french beans bundled in my skirt, the mound of muddy lettuce in my hands, memories of Nice flooding over me, I knew I needed to make a Salade Niçoise for dinner that night. I had some red-skinned potatoes and ripe red tomatoes in my pantry, and nutrient-dense eggs from our chickens. All I needed to round it out was some tuna and a little champagne vinegar (although David Lebovitz would tell you there’s really no vinegar in a traditional Salade Niçoise, nor are there potatoes. Julia Child would beg to differ, though).
This is a salade composee, or a composed salad, meaning that’s it’s not all tossed together, but that each of the ingredients is kept separated in its own space. What’s nice about this, at least when you have small children, is that people can avoid the components that they don’t like. My five year old doesn’t like olives or red lettuce, so I was easily able to fix him a plate that just held tuna, green beans, potatoes, tomatoes and eggs.
Salade Niçoise (adapted from Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child)
prep time: 10 minutes
cook time: 20 minutes
serves: 6-8 as a meal
- 3 cups cold, blanched, green beans
- 2 or 3 quartered tomatoes
- 1 head lettuce, separated, washed, drained and dried
- 3 cups red-skinned potatoes, quartered, boiled and cooled
- 1/2 cup oil-cured black olives (Nicoise olives if you can find them)
- 3 hard-boiled eggs, cold, peeled and quartered
- 1/2 cup French vinaigrette (recipe to follow)
- 2 6-0z. tuna filets, seasoned, seared and cut or torn into chunks
- 2-3 Tablespoons minced, fresh green herbs
- Toss the lettuce leaves with 1/2 of the vinaigrette and them in the bottom of a salad bowl or serving dish.
- Toss the green beans, tomatoes and potatoes separately with a bit of the vinaigrette
- Arrange the vegetable around the bowl in a decorative pattern
- Add the eggs and olives
- Place the tuna in the center
- Sprinkle with herbs, and drizzle with remaining dressing
Prep time: 5 minutes
- 2 Tablespoons champagne vinegar
- 1/8 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon dry mustard
- 6 Tablespoons olive oil
- 2 Tablespoons minced herbs (I used parsley)
- Whisk together the vinegar, salt and mustard until well incorporated
- Slowly drizzle olive oil in while whisking constantly
- Add the herbs at the end.