I took two hugely memorable summer trips to Europe as a teenager, accompanied by my whole family. We wandered through Italy, Switzerland, and my beloved France, exploring the tastes and sights as we traveled across the countryside in our rented Volkswagen bus. There were no reservations and no agenda other than the list of flea markets, organized by date and town, which my mother boldly used as our road map.
Les marchés aux puces are what I remember most about our trips. Each flea market gave us a snapshot of what life was like in that particular corner of the world. We would make a day of it, arriving early to snatch the best goods, resting for lunch in a nearby café, and then wandering a bit more until exhaustion forced us back to the car in search of a place to rest our bones. I always loved the moment when I stood at the threshold of the hunt, not knowing what treasure I might find buried in an unassuming box or strewn haphazardly on a table amongst a sea of junk. In life, that sense of not-knowing doesn’t typically fill me with the same excitement and so browsing the flea markets is, in a way, my practice—a reminder to gaze into the unknown with awe and wonder. We frequented dozens of markets in our travels, and my eyes were soon able to scan the aisles like a pro, quickly seeking out the glimmer of silver or the softness of linen. I credit my love (and any skills I may possess) for design to those hours spent curating my own personal collection of flea market finds.
Fervent shopping was hard work and so we would all break for lunch, collapsing into an outdoor café, our mouths parched and our stomachs grumbling. My mother—a perpetual creature of habit—devoted herself to the tireless work of taste-testing the same lunch, day in and day out. Unbeknownst to the country of France, she became the unofficial connoisseur of her favorite dish: la salade niçoise.
To this day I have a special place in my heart for a niçoise salad. It’s true that it is especially delicious in the summer, when the more delicate varieties of lettuce are in season. But it’s also true that when you love something that much, it doesn’t really matter when you eat it. What I learned from watching my mother enjoy the many incarnations of this meal is that there really isn’t a ‘right’ way to make it. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons I have adopted her love for cette salade. I like to be able to create a dish in much the same way that my mother planned our trips through Europe—with her passion and her instincts as her guide.
Lettuce of your choice. Butter lettuce (Boston Bibb) or Oak Leaf lettuce are my favorites.
Can of tuna packed in oil.
Green beans, boiled for 5-8 minutes in heavily salted boiling water, then shocked in an ice bath.
As many hard boiled eggs as your heart can handle.
Tomatoes, rough chop.
Olives (which I don’t always use but sometimes they just feel right).
Potatoes, boiled until tender.
Whisk together dijon mustard (an oversized teaspoon), chopped shallots (let’s say a tablespoon), red wine vinegar, salt and pepper. Slowly pour in your oil as you whisk. Remember: 3 parts oil to 1 part vinegar.
Like in a true salade composée, neatly arrange all of the components on top of your lettuce instead of tossing everything together. This is a great salad to serve guests because you can place the prepared ingredients into separate bowls and allow your friends to follow their fancy.
After a lazy lunch spent recuperating from our morning’s adventure, we would gather our things and head back to the van. We must’ve been a sight—awkwardly managing our shopping bags and, like true tourists, maneuvering through crowded cafés and busy sidewalks leaving a path of destruction in our wake. Luckily my parents always packed garment bags (for oil paintings), duck tape (to secure boxes and the garment bags) and extra luggage (for all of our brocantes). In those days you could still lug bottles of olive oil on board a plane along with your other six pieces of carry-on. Ahh, those were the days.
I hope you enjoy this salad—a veritable meal in and of itself—as much as I do. Every bite transports me to those summers in our rented Volkswagen van, driving off to the next spot on my mother’s map. I believe it’s good for the soul to make something in your kitchen that reminds you of the sacred moments in your life. There is a little piece of my soul in this salad. Bon appétit!