Salade Niçoise

Along with its Provençal cousin bouillabaisse, Salade Niçoise is the perfect example of peasant food made good!

Hailing from the Cote d’Azur in the South of France, Salade Niçoise has always been popular and is considered one of the classic salads of the world. Whilst it’s undeniably a dish of humble beginnings, its ingredients have grown in sophistication, along with the salad’s popularity. Quail eggs, seared bluefin tuna steaks, asparagus – all have found their way into Niçoises the world over.

Whilst traditionally the inclusion of tuna in a Niçoise Salad is by no means a given, there was a time when good-old tinned tuna would suffice. Nowadays however, seared tuna steaks seem to have become the norm in swankier eateries. Controversially, I personally still prefer some good quality tinned tuna over a slab of seared tuna any day! Not only do I think it’s a criminal waste of precious, overpriced tuna, it is also often a tad bland and doesn’t stand up well to the intensity of the other ingredients. Good tuna deserves to be the star of the show and in a Niçoise, though, it is often lost in the riot of competing flavours. Save it for sashimi, I say.

It seems, however, that I’m in the minority in my tuna preference. So much so, I’ve even had waitrons apologizing because the Niçoise salad on the menu was “just” made with tinned tuna. They usually seem a bit surprised when I order it in spite of their dire warnings and forebodings! The truth is that a lot of things can make for a bad Niçoise salad, good quality tinned tuna isn’t one of them, but if seared is your thing, please don’t let me dissuade you!

These days just about anything passes as a Niçoise salad, in fact, there is really no definitive version of this classic French salad. Whether it be the anchovies, tuna or potatoes, everybody seems to have their own ideas with regards to which combination makes for the perfect Niçoise. To be honest though, as with most things, it really comes down to personal taste. Carb-conscious? Ditch the potatoes. Not fan of tuna? Leave it out. Hate anchovies? Eat a different salad!

For more great salads from The Muddled Pantry, please click here

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Spaghetti alla Puttanesca

IMG_6913 (600x800)One of the ultimate “love it” or “loathe it” meals, Spaghetti alla Puttanesca is a dish accustomed to evoking passionate reactions in all those who dare eat it! Robust, seductive and “easy”, Spaghetti alla Puttanesca appropriately translates into English as “Spaghetti of the Whore”.

In spite of its alarmingly rowdy name, puttanesca has probably less to do with salacious ladies of the night and perhaps more to do with its “trashy” ingredients. The dish is alleged to have been created by a restaurant owner in the 1950’s to appease some rowdy late-night patrons. As closing time was upon them, the patrons supposedly demanded the owner quickly whip them up something to eat, insisting that it could be made with “any kind of garbage (puttanata)”. With just some leftover tomatoes, capers and olives, the obliging owner threw together a simple pasta sauce that would become the classic dish we now all know and love…or loathe. At least that’s the PG version of puttanesca’s origins and is perhaps nothing more than Wikiepdia-lore – we will never really know for sure.

I, however, prefer to believe in puttanesca’s seedier origin-story as it speaks to the heart of the unrefined character of the dish. This is a pasta sauce born out of back alleys of Sicily, ordered with harsh whispers and eaten with the appetite of the insatiable and unsophisticated. This is a dish that is as unapologetic and unrepentant as the women who reputably ate it. Puttanesca is a sauce that holds nothing back – there are few pasta sauces that pack this much of a punch with each mouthful. Coarse, salty and bordering on the uncouth, to my mind Spaghetti alla Puttanesca is indeed a dish that is aptly named!

Aside from its history, the one other point of contention with regards to puttanesca are anchovies! Whilst I cannot imagine puttanesca without them, I must point out that the addition of these divisive little fish to the sauce isn’t always the norm. In fact, anchovies were a later inclusion to the dish and are still only used depending on regional tastes and variations. Outside of Italy though, anchovies are synonymous with puttanesca and I see absolutely no reason to advocate otherwise.

Irrespective of which version of Spaghetti alla Puttanesca’s history you chose to believe, or whether you want it with anchovies or not, the next time you order it at a restaurant just bear in mind what you are really saying to the waitron. Depending on the neighbourhood you are in, when you utter the words, “I’ll have the puttanesca, please”, you might get more than you bargained for!

For more Italian recipes from The Muddled Pantry, please click here

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