SINCE THE season for light eating is upon us, an examination of the phenomenon known as the salade nicoise is in order, particularly since, as once French journalist has written, it is "a victim of its own universal success." Prepared in restaurants from Bogata to Bali, the nicoise is, lamentably, not often seen in tis classic configuration. Such a state of affairs has caused purists to begin considering the true nicoise a "salade en peril," a veritable snail darter of a dish.
Take this example: A cookbook in my collection offers these instructions for making a salade nicoise: "Beans, potatoes, eggs, tuna fish and everything good combined in a very French way."
One can only hope this airily vague recipe never falls into the hands of someone who interprets it to mean, say, baked beans or scrambled eggs. And, as far as I'm concerned, "everything good" could be seen to include peanut butter and jelly. Or, for that matter, who knows what "a very French way" signifies? Served in a wine sauce?
Actually, there are rigid rules govening the preparation of a nicoise. And thus the fetishists who set out either to guard those rules or to flaunt them. According to Fabien Gruhier, who writes frequently about food for Le Nouvel Observateur, the only permissible ingredients are tomatoes, cucumbers, green peppers, black olives, small white onions, garlic, basil, tiny fresh artichokes or fresh lima beans, anchovy fillets or tuna.
That's it. Gruhier won't even tolerate lettuce, much less green beans or -- quelle horreur! -- potatoes, whose presence in a nicoise he considers one of the three major heresies. Another is the use of both tuna and anchovies instead of one or the other, as it should be. Finally, he sternly decrees, there must be no vegetables that are not fresh -- one must never, never, never subsitute cooked, canned or frozen onions, limas, etc. Not if you want the real thing, a salad worthy of its grand heritage in the sunlit, sea-kissed south of France.
Even the mayor of Nice, Jacques Medecin, has put his two francs in. He writes in his cookbook, "La Cuisine du Comte de Nice": "Never incorporate into a nicoise the least amount of potato or cooked vegetable."
In her wonderfully evocative and authoritative collection of Provencal and Nicois recipes, "The Cuisine of the Sun," Mireille Johnston calls the salade nicoise "the ultimate salad -- a feast of feasts -- eaten only in the spring or summer when tender fresh vegetables are ripe and abundant." Recognizing that there are many adulterations of this famous salad, she avers that there is "only one classic salade nicoise." Her recipe, Johnston claims, is it.
However, in addition to Gruhier's mandatory licit components, Johnston elects a few others: red or white radishes, a fennel bulb and chapons, which are stale bread crusts broken into medium-sized strips and rubbed with garlic. She allows lettuce into the melange but agrees that only the "freshest raw vegetables" may be used.
Fabien Gruhier and his countryman, Rene Cenni of the newspaper Nice-Matin, in their zeal to uphold the purity of the salade nicoise, would probably be illing to burn Julia Child at her own barbecue pit since that doyenne de cuisine commits all three of the heresies they decry. Offering her recipe in "The French Chef Cookbook," Child calls for the inclusion of already cooked green beans, potato salad (!) and both tuna and anchovies. At the very least one imagines that the two crusading Frenchmen would stand her up in her kitchen to be pelted with olives.
Nora Pouillon of Washington's restaurant Nora takes a moderately laissez-faire attitude toward the salade nicoise for her kitchen. When she offers a nicoise as a summer specialty, she shuns potatoes, choose tuna over anchovies and blanches the green beans she tosses with the mixture. Nora also has been known to serve a nicoise sandwich: the salade stuffed into pita bread. To achieve a more accurate version, she cheerfully endorses consulting British food writer Elizabeth David, whose books on French and Italian cookery are marvels of affectionate scholarship.
David, in her "French Provincial Cooking," provides interested cooks with four variations on the nicoise. One is Escoffier's conception of the dish ("tuna fish in oil, the flesh of tomatoes, diced anchovy fillets, seasoning of taragon, chervil and chopped chives, with or without mustard") while two of the others come from books featuring the cuisine of Nice. Her own recipe, which David states is"always served as an hor d'oeuvre," should resemble "a rouch country salad rather than a fussy chef's concoction."
Now that fussy chefs have been introduced to salade nicoise snobbery, they can choose what degree of laxity they wish to partake of. Says David broadmindedly, "It is up to you to choose the other ingredients: tuna fish, cooked french beans, raw sliced red peppers, beetroot, potatoes, artichoke hearts."
Whether or not you opt for a purist's approach to take David's words to heart, bear in mind that a good crusty French bread, a chilled rose and some sweetly ripe fresh fruit are all it takes to transport your tastebuds to the shores of the Mediterranean.
Which leads, should one be wondering at the reason for my verdant dissertation, to a small village on the Cote d'Azur, where I was spending the day at the local nudist beach. On a little pier at one end of the sheltered cove was an open-air restaurant serving only the resident sunbathers. Not surprisingly, the proprietor, the waitress, the chef and the regulars sipping their apertifs were all without clothes.
As noontime approached and I began to get hungry, I rose and dusted the sand off, debating whether or not I could enjoy eating while naked. It seemed one thing when I was lying gracefully (I hoped) on a mat reading Proust or when I made my way languidely (I hoped) to the water's edge to wade in. But to sit down at a table and tuck in . . . quite honestly, my body seemed suddenly to be nothing but a puny covering on top of a set of digestive organs, all eager to convert calories into extra inches. I began to realize that eating with your clothes on is, in fact, like stuffing in secret -- well, almost.
So I put on my smock and headed for the good smells, ignoring the raised eyebrows of the habitues, who thought me overdressed. A steak being cooked with pommes frites was sending out its seductive message. Yet when I took a place at one of the tables and the uniform-less waitress approached to take my order, I had a failure of nerve.
Surrounded by flesh -- my own or that of others, whether ample or svelte -- I knew I could not swallow a french fry. My alternative? You guessed it: a salade nicoise. ELIZABETH DAVID'S SALADE NICOISE (2 servings) 1/2 head of lettuce 2 hard-cooked eggs 2 tomatoes 6 anchovy fillets 8 to 10 black olives Sprinkling of capers (optional) Olive oil, tarragon, vinegar, salt, pepper to taste 1 clove garlic, crushed
Arrange a quartered lettuce in your salad bowl. Add 2 hard-cooked eggs, cut in half, 2 very firm quartered tomatoes, not more than half a dozen anchovy fillets and 8 to 10 black olives, and, if you like them, a few capers. Only when the salad is about to be eaten, mix it with the dressing, made from the best fruity olive oil you can lay your hands on, tarragon, vinegar, salt, pepper, a crushed clove of garlic. MIREILLE JOHNSTON'S SALADE NICOISE (6 servings) 6 firm, half-ripe tomatoes 1 cucumber, peeled and sliced 1 head boston lettuce, or 3 heads bibb lettuce, each leaf cut in half 1/2 pound very young fresh lima beans 6 small purple artichokes (from California and found in Italian markets), quartered 1 fennel bulb, sliced in 1/4-inch strips 2 green peppers (Italian, preferably), seeded and sliced 6 small white onions or half a Spanish onion, thinly sliced Handful of white or red radishes with stems 3 hard-cooked eggs, cut in half lengthwise 10 anchovy fillets, cut in thirds (8-ounce can of tuna in oil may be substituted) Handfull of small black olives, unpitted 6 to 12 chapons (strips of stale bread crusts rubbed with a clove of garlic) Vinaigrette: 3/4 cup olive oil 1/4 cup red wine vinegar Salt Freshly ground black pepper 2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed 10 leaves of fresh basil or mint, chopped
Wash and quarter the tomatoes (do not peel them), salt lightly and let them drain upside down on a board for 10 minutes. Peel and slice the cucumber, drain on a paper towel for 10 minutes. Prepare the other vegetables and eggs, anchovy fillets and olives. Prepare the chapons.
To make the vinaigrette, mix the oil and vinegar, seaosn to taste with salt and pepper, and add the garlic and basil or mint.
Arrange the vegetables, eggs, anchovy fillets and olives attractively in a shallow dish and surround with lettuce leaves and chapons . Pour the vinaigrette over everything and bring the dish to the table without stirring it. Just before serving individual portions, tos delicately but thoroughly.