Julia Child was easy to please in the same way that Sir Winston Churchill was. The British statesman famously said that all he wanted was perfection; Julia just wanted food to be delicious.
With that sole criterion in play, she would eat just about anything — except pasta salad. I never knew why she had such an aversion to the wildly popular dish, but her dislike was so deep that during the summer of 1995, when we filmed the PBS series “Baking With Julia” at her house in Cambridge, Mass., she gave the caterer of the day free rein with only one caveat: Pasta salad was a deal-breaker for our crew of 15 to 20. And she was good to her word. Two caterers were fired the afternoons when the forbidden dish hit the table.
Not surprisingly, I can’t look at a pasta salad without thinking of Julia, and she was at the top of my mind when I put together the accompanying recipe. I don’t think of it as a salad, but there’s no doubt that it was inspired by one. This is my take on one of my favorite cold dishes: salad Niçoise.
The celebrated French Riviera salad is known for its handful of iconic ingredients: olives (Niçoise, if possible); anchovies (I thought I’d get these out here early; I know they’re controversial, so I’ve made them optional); capers; green beans; tomatoes; potatoes (the pasta can stand in for these or you can add them); eggs (optional); garlic; and, most important, tuna.
Lots of restaurants get fancy and use fresh tuna, but the classic salad is made with canned tuna, so that’s what you should use with this dish. Choose good-quality tuna packed in olive oil, and save the oil, because it becomes the base of the sauce (or, dare I say, dressing). I opt for light tuna because I think it has more flavor than white, but the choice is yours.
The vegetables — colorful, popping with flavor and contributing crunch, chew and bite — give the dish its wide appeal. The green beans and tomatoes are crucial for authenticity, taste and texture, too. In France, the beans would be skinny haricots verts, but regular green beans are fine; just cut them into bite-size lengths. As for the tomatoes, I’ve seen the salads made with wedges from fist-size fruits or chunks of grape or cherry tomatoes. I’m suggesting the smaller tomatoes because they usually run sweetest, and I’m bolstering their flavor with some chopped sun-dried tomatoes. If you’ve got juicy, delicious fresh tomatoes, you can skip the dried.
Capers are a must, and anchovies are optional, although I’m crossing my fingers that you’ll use them. I think they’re great with the tuna and tomatoes. If you do, don’t skip the rinse step. Some people call it “desalinization,” and I think they’re right; it certainly cuts the saltiness.
The dish requires advance prep: cooking the beans and slicing, chopping and dicing the other ingredients. But once that’s accomplished, and it can be done a few hours ahead, it will take you only as long as it takes the pasta to cook to pull it all together. Actually, “pull it all together” makes it sound strenuous. All you’ve got to do is mix everything. And taste. It’s really important that you taste the finished dish for salt (you’d be surprised that even with all the savory ingredients, you might still want more salt; pasta is a salt sopper-upper), pepper (black and red) and more olive oil.
You can, if you’d like, toss in a handful of greens just before you bring the dish to the table. Had I been making this for Julia, you can be sure I wouldn’t have: too much like salad. I also wouldn’t have mentioned to her how good the leftovers are chilled. It’s the pasta-salad thing again.
Photo by Dixie D. Vereen. This story appeared in my Everyday Dorie column in the Washington Post.
Warm Fusilli French Riviera Style
Salad Niçoise can have boiled potatoes and hard-cooked eggs, and there’s no reason not to add those to this pasta salad.
Choose the smallest potatoes you can find – you want only 4 or 5 – and cook them, unpeeled, until tender. Once they’re cool, cut them into bite-size chunks. Cook 6 eggs, cool them, then cut into quarters. Toss the potatoes with the pasta, but keep the eggs aside and use them to top the dish.
Make Ahead: The beans can be cooked, cooled and refrigerated a day in advance. Once the pasta salad is assembled, it can be held at room temperature for up to 4 hours, or covered and refrigerated for up to 2 days (and served cold; if you plan to do so, the pasta salad may need more oil or salt and pepper, so taste for those).
Makes 6 servings
- Fine sea salt
- 1 pound dried fusilli pasta
- 2 cans (5 to 6 ounces each) light tuna packed in olive oil, drained, oil reserved
- 8 ounces fresh or frozen/defrosted green beans, trimmed, cut into bite-size lengths and cooked until crisp-tender
- 12 pitted black olives, preferably Niçoise (if olives are large, coarsely chop)
- 10 oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes, drained and chopped (optional; use if your fresh tomatoes aren’t completely ripe)
- 2 cups grape or cherry tomatoes, each cut into quarters
- 6 scallions, trimmed and thinly sliced (may substitute 2 spring onions)
- 4 flat anchovies, rinsed, dried and coarsely chopped (optional)
- 2 tablespoons capers, rinsed and patted dry
- 1 to 2 cloves garlic, sliced wafer-thin (optional; germ removed)
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 2 lemons
- Pinch piment d’Espelette (may substitute ground cayenne pepper)
- 3 tablespoons snipped dill (may substitute chopped chives or parsley)
- Olive oil, as needed
- 2 handfuls arugula, mesclun or soft lettuce, torn (optional)
Bring a large pot of generously salted water to a boil over medium-high heat. Drop in the fusilli, stir and cook according to the package directions.
While the water is reaching a boil and the pasta is cooking, turn the tuna into a large serving bowl and break it up with a fork. Toss in the green beans; olives; sun-dried (as needed) and fresh tomatoes; scallions; anchovies, if using; capers; and garlic (to taste), if using. Mix everything together and season lightly with salt and pepper.
Drain the pasta, turn it into the serving bowl and add all the reserved oil from the tuna; mix to coat the pasta.
Grate the zest of both lemons into the bowl; cut the fruit in half and squeeze in the juice, then add the piment d’Espelette and the dill. Toss to mix thoroughly; taste for salt, black and red pepper and oil. (If more oil is needed, use the olive oil). If you’d like, either top with the torn greens or mix them into the pasta.
Serve warm, or wait until the pasta reaches room temperature. If you serve the fusilli at room temperature, it may need more oil, salt or pepper; taste for those.