Salade nicoise was the first recipe I made when I lived in France, a country that later would become my second home as an adult.
But at the time I was 19, spending a semester abroad. A week after my arrival, my French was barely sufficient to order a coffee, let alone get me through my first French cookbook. Despite the language barrier, one thing that that book made clear was that a true salade nicoise never would include tomatoes because of the acid.
I stood at a turning point: Would I follow the cookbook's stern direction (even I understood the author's tone — the tomato thing was not an "optional" point), or would I include my personal favorite part of every salade nicoise I had ever eaten (dare I even call them that anymore?)? I left out the tomatoes.
Nearly 30 years later, I make salade nicoise on a regular basis for my family. It's what I call a "tray salad," or a huge salad I make by layering ingredients on a large tray, perfect for serving a crowd. We have a lot of family nearby, so if we have unexpected extra folks to feed, tray salads are easy to stretch. Just bulk up the tray with whatever extra ingredients are available. Toss on a couple extra hard-boiled eggs, for instance, and the salad can accommodate a few more guests no problem.
With several family members being vegetarian, I have created a tuna-free version that gets the salty-fishy-brininess from capers and nori seaweed, and the protein from creamy white navy beans. Of course, there is no harm in opening a can of tuna on the side for fish-eaters, but honestly, I don't even miss it with this filling recipe.
By the way, years after studying abroad, I moved back to Paris and married a man whose mom was born and raised in Nice. Guess what? She had never heard of a no-tomato rule, which just goes to show you that recipes, even if written with an authoritative tone, are mere suggestions.
White and green bean vegetarian 'salade nicoise'
Start to finish: 25 minutes
For the dressing:
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon herbes de Provence
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and ground black pepper
For the salad:
15 1/2-ounce can white navy beans, rinsed and blotted dry
2 tablespoons small capers
1/4 cup briny olives, roughly chopped
2 teaspoons chopped fresh dill
5 ounces baby spinach or mixed greens
4 eggs, hard-boiled, peeled and quartered lengthwise
8 ounces thin green beans, steamed until crisp-tender, cooled
8 small red potatoes, cooked and halved
1 cup grape tomatoes, halved
2 scallions, finely chopped
1 sheet nori, toasted, cooled and crushed
Lemon wedges, to garnish
In a small bowl, whisk together the mustard, lemon juice, vinegar and herbs until smooth. Whisk in the olive oil, slowly, creating an emulsion. Add a tablespoon of water if too thick. Season with salt and pepper, then set aside.
In another small bowl, mix together the beans with the capers, olives, dill and 1 to 2 tablespoons of the dressing. Set aside.
On a platter, spread out the greens. Layer on the eggs, green beans, potatoes, tomatoes and white beans. Sprinkle with the scallions, drizzle on the dressing and top with the crushed toasted nori. Serve with lemon wedges as garnish.
Nutrition information per serving: 530 calories; 200 calories from fat (38 percent of total calories); 22 g fat (3.5 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 185 mg cholesterol; 780 mg sodium; 63 g carbohydrate; 12 g fiber; 6 g sugar; 21 g protein.
Food Network star Melissa d'Arabian is an expert on healthy eating on a budget. She is the author of the cookbook, "Supermarket Healthy." www.melissadarabian.net.