This story by Judy Zeidler about cooking for an empty nest really hit me hard. Judy is a glass-half-full bundle of enthusiasm, and I suppose her children follow suit. Their brood departs, they adjust their recipes, move on. I find myself not so... adjustable.
Our son left for college two years ago and I still haven't got used to cooking for three. Now our daughter is on the cusp of college, and I'm facing cooking for two. It just...sucks. A big part of the joy of cooking is the joy of feeding-- at least feeding the people you love. That's what gives me the energy to look forward to shopping and cooking after a full day at work. That's often been my recreation after a full day at work.
Long before we had kids, I loved to cook dinner for just the two of us. Aren't I just going back to that? Yes, and no. Ever since we filled those two seats at the dinner table, anything less than four feels a bit empty. I find myself making faster, simpler things, the kind of dishes that scale down from four servings to two but still feel like a meal.
Nicoise salad is one of those dishes. Almost every week, when the kids filled the table, I'd make one with whatever vegetables were freshest. Now I'm pushing to make a slighty smaller version-- though I still find myself making enough at least four, out of habit.
Nicoise is easy because we always have a can of tuna or a hunk of wild cold-smoked salmon, and eggs. You open, arrange with whatever good vegetables are around (lettuce, tomatoes, potatoes, green beans, peppers, avocado), add capers and olives, lemon and olive oil-- done. Easy-- but not perfect.
To make it even better, here are five tips I've learned over the years:
1. Use olive-oil packed tuna or use a lot of oilive oil and lemon directly on your tuna. Dry clumps or shreds of tuna in the salad feel like eraser in your mouth. Tuna needs moisture.
2. Make a simple dressing. Make a dressing of 1 part fresh-squeezed lemon juice, three parts great olive oil, salt, pepper and a lump Dijon mustard. Keep it simple but strong.
3. Warm potatoes, warm eggs, cold dressing. Boil potatoes and slice while still warm. I scrub but don't peel them if the skins are thin. Place them still warm onto the salad, and pour the cool dressing directly onto them. It absorbs and each potato becomes a small salad in itself.
4. Don't skimp on capers, or olives. Capers and olives are the salt of your salad. Rinse the capers briefly to get rid of excess salt or vinegar, then scatter like salt across the surface. Use whatever good olives you have, not the canned California type. I prefer kalamata olives in my Nicoise. Saltier and meatier. If they're not pitted, warn your guests.
5. Eggs slightly undercooked, beans slightly overcooked. Soft eggs with bright yolks taste better and separate ypur salad from the stuff they serve at the cafe in your office building. And green beans that are one smidge softer than al dente soak up the dressing better, melt in with the rest. Place your eggs in cold water and bring to boil. Reduce heat a bit and continue on a gentle boil for two and a half minutes. Drain and let sit. When ready to serve peel and slice in half. As for the beans, blanch in boiling water until very tender, just past bright green. Immediately plunge into cold water, drain and add to sald.
I'll put the recipe below. It serves four. Or, with a bit of melancholy, two.
1 head butter lettuce or other green (arugula, spring mix, etc)
1 handful green beans, trimmed
3 ripe tomatoes, diced
1 avocado, peeled, seeded, cubed
1 yellow , red or orange pepper, cored and diced
1/2 pounds potatoes, scrubbed.
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1/2 c. olive oil
salt and pepper
Make the dressing: squeeze lemon juice into a small powl. Add mustard and stir well. Add olive oil, salt and pepper and whisk, shake or stir briskly. Taste and adjust with more lemon or oil.
Fill a 2 quart saucepan with water. Bring to a boil. Add green beans and boil until very tender, remove and plunge into cold water. Drain and dry.
Add eggs to boiling water. Boil for ten minutes, remove and place in cold water.
Add potatoes to the boiling water and cook until very tender.
In the meantime, in a large rather flat bowl, place lettuce, then arrange the vegetables in groups on top. Place tuna in center, sliced potatoes and eggs around that. Sprinkle with capers and olives. Pour dressing over all. Serve.