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Nov 10, 2020
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WINE WITH…Pasta Niçoise

Since Salade Niçoise is probably the most popular salad in the world, and since the most popular staple in everyone’s pandemic pantry is undoubtedly pasta, I recently found myself wondering what it would be like to combine these two beloved foods.  First off, however, we need to define what a true Salade Niçoise is.  Named for Nice, the seaside town nestled at the edge of the Mediterranean where it originated, the salad has aroused a surprising amount of controversy since it was conceived a hundred or so years ago.  Even famous food writers who are generally known for their polite good humor can become snarky when they feel the salad’s true nature is not being respected.  What’s usually at issue here is deciding on the correct ingredients that make up a true Salade Niçoise.  

“Everyone seems to have a very strong opinion as to what should or should not go into a Salade Nicoise,” the English cook and author Nigella Lawson has observed. 

Take the tuna for starters.  Sometime around the mid twentieth century, chefs began introducing grilled or poached tuna as a supposedly classier option to the traditional canned tuna, but this variation has not been met with universal approval.  Europeans seem to prefer the original canned tuna while Americans gravitate more towards fresh tuna--but not all Americans.  Mimi Sheraton, for example, food critic for The New York Times from 1975 to 1983, is one of many professional foodies who have spoken out against this trend:  “Salade Nicoise with fresh tuna is a travesty,” she wrote.  “If you like it you are wrong.”

I will admit that I am very much on the side of the canned tuna crowd myself, but I don’t have strong feelings about potatoes and green beans.  The noted chef August Escoffier is credited with being the first to add bring these two items to the mix, although not everyone is a fan.  Jacques Médecin, who wrote a cookbook, La Cuisine du Comté de Nice, and who also was the mayor of the city of Nice from 1966 to 1990, was nothing if not opinionated on this topic.  “Whatever you do, if you want to be a worthy exponent of Niçoise cookery, never, never, I beg you, include boiled potato or any other boiled vegetable."  (As it happened Médecin soon had more pressing things to worry about than potatoes when he fled to Uruguay in 1990 under suspicion of corruption; three years later he was extradited back to France where he was convicted and jailed.)

The presence of lettuce in a Salade Niçoise is another addition I can take or leave unless there is so much of it that the whole thing becomes a green salad lightly garnished with tuna.  (Original Salade Niçoise did not include leafy greens).  Tomatoes, on the other hand, are an absolute requirement, especially when they are fresh, ripe, flavorful, juicy summer tomatoes.  Olives did not appear in the earliest days of Salade Niçoise but they soon became valuable players, especially dark, black olives.  Whether or not to include anchovies is a matter of personal preference although many people believe strongly that it should be tuna or anchovies, never both (personally I tend to adhere to the principle that you can seldom have too much of a good thing, at least in this case).  Capers?  Sure.  Garlic?  Mais oui.  Chopped raw onion?  Maybe, but not too much.  Some cooks dress the salad in a light vinaigrette while others favor simply a drizzle of good olive oil with, perhaps, a light squeeze of lemon.  If you’re inclined to muck things up with mayonnaise be my guest, but don’t call it Salade Niçoise.

And now we come to the pasta part of this treatise.  I prefer spaghetti or linguine in this preparation but feel free to use something like rigatoni for example.  The only sort of pasta I probably wouldn’t choose here might be very tiny or delicate shapes such as Anelli, Orzo, or Angel Hair.

Pasta Niçoise

Serves 4

One pound pasta such as spaghetti or fettucine
One can high quality tuna*
2-4 fresh tomatoes cut in bite sized pieces
1/2-3/4 cup pitted black olives such as kalamata or nicoise
2  teaspoons capers
1/3 cup minced fresh mild onion such as Vidalia (optional)
1 garlic clove, finely minced
1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
1-2 anchovies (optional)
1/3 cup olive oil
Minced fresh herbs such as parsley, chives and/or basil (optional)
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese

Cook the pasta according to package directions then drain and put it into a large serving bowl.  Stir in the tuna, tomatoes, olives, capers and onion (if using).  Stir the minced garlic and the anchovies (if using) into the lemon juice, mash the anchovies a a little with a fork, then add it all to the pasta.  Stir in the olive oil, adding more if the mixture seems dry.  Sprinkle Parmesan over the top and add the herbs, if using. 

*High quality tuna brands include Ortiz Bonito, Tonnino, Genova, American, and Wild Planet

The Wines:

Although I sampled a couple of red wines, I did not find one that enhanced the dish in the same way that the best white and rosés I tried did.  Two French Chardonnays, while different in their flavor profiles, each offered bright suggestions of fruit plus enough acidity to avoid being overshadowed by the richness of the tuna and other assertive flavors in the dish.  But you want something very different from a French Chardonnay?  Then pop the cork on a delicious pink sparkling wine from California.

Louis Jadot, Beaune (Burgundy, France) Mâcon-Villages Chardonnay 2019 ($14):  A Chardonnay that is pleasantly round and fleshy without being obese, this thoroughly delectable wine embraces the multiplicity of tastes and textures in the tuna-accented pasta.
 
Campet Ste. Marie, Pays d’Oc (Languedoc, France) Chardonnay 2018 (Wine Circle Imports, $17):  Beautiful flavors of peach, pear and lemon hit all the right notes with the pasta.  The wine spins gracefully across the palate leading into a persistent finish.  

J, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County (California) Brut Rosé, NV ($45):  This fairly bold bubbly offers red fruit flavors that partner nicely with the variety of assertive flavors in the dish.  A lighter sparkling wine might have been overshadowed by the multitude of flavors and textures in the pasta.  



More recipes and wine pairings:    Wine With...  
Connect with Marguerite on Twitter:   @M_L_Thomas