Tuna nicoise with some help from Trader Joe's

Tuna nicoise salad is the first thing I ever cooked for R*. He came over to my apartment for a week night dinner, so I needed some that felt fancy and fitting but would also be flash-in-the-pan fast to serve since I would be racing home from work to get my impressive dinner together. I guess the tuna salad worked since we’re still together, but I hadn't made it since.

On Sunday I decided to take a second try at making tuna nicoise salad. I wanted a light and clean-tasting dinner so that we had plenty of room for the chocolate cake desert. Since I had a busy Sunday, I wouldn’t have a lot of time to cook and I wanted to focus most of my energy on the cake.

The tuna, of course, is the main draw of tuna nicoise. Finding fresh tuna is difficult and expensive. As I did when I first made it for R*, I got the tuna at Whole Foods. Buying the lettuce, lemons, olives, potatoes, Dijon mustard and all at Whole Foods got to be a pretty pricey dinner.

This time, I had Trader Joe’s on my side. I went to TJ’s first and picked up excellent baby roma on the vine tomatoes (I usually don’t like raw tomato at all except for hand these were delcious!), Dijon mustard, some decent haricot verts, and real nicoise olives. Feeling French, I picked up some cornichons too. TJ’s did have one pack of fresh tuna left in the meat section, but it looked a bit brownish-grey. I passed. I still needed little potatoes and lemons – I had seen both at our new TJ’s in the past, but the store was packed and picked over by the time I got out of brunch.

No worries. While waiting in the long but fast-moving line at Trader Joe’s, I figured out what else I needed. With Whole Foods right down 14th Street, I could get a great price on some parts of my salad from Trader Joe’s and then pick up the rest at Whole Foods. I ran through Whole Foods to get $25 fresh tuna, a bag of baby fingerling potatoes and a bag of organic lemons and got back in another line, feeling slightly weird about having three Trader Joe’s bags.

Nearly every subway to Brooklyn was out on Sunday, but I eventually found a cab home. I got in my apartment and got right to work blanching the haricot verts and boiling the potatoes and eggs. I got all the vegetables in the fridge and freezer, secret weapon of super cold salad construction, and got to work on the chocolate souffle cake. Our guest arrived just as I popped the cake into the oven.

We put our big platter out on the island and the three of us had fun art-directing and assembling our salad while the tuna seared away. By dredging the potatoes and haricot verts through the dressing before adding them to the salad, we made sure the whole salad was flavored with the dressing without drowning the fragile farmer's market greens.

Some notes I’ll remember when I make a tuna nicoise next time:
-- Take the hard boiled eggs out of the water faster, so they don't get that ugly dark edge around the yolks.
-- If you leave the olives in the freezer too long, they freeze rock solid.
-- There’s a lot of pit and not so much meat in TJ’s nicoise olive. Research olive options. If you don’t use nicoise olive, is a nicoise salad still nicoise?
-- There’s something so great about Hellman’s mayonnaise and the tuna. Instead of hiding the jar on the floor, I’ll incorporate mayo right into the design of the salad. Maybe some dollops on top of the eggs.
-- Some of the other recipes I’ve seen incorporate fresh herbs like chervil and tarragon. This could add some fun spark to the salad, but I wonder if it would break the great saline/clean/refreshing taste from just the tuna, olives and a little Dijon.


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