There is much to say before I speak of the two tantalizing and scrumptious traditional French rustic specialties, Pissaladière and Salade Niçoise that can be found all over France (their origins in the South.) They can also be found in European type bistros in America and Canada and on occasion I’ve seen them in bakeries and once in a hip diner in Providence. When I was working for Eastern Airlines back in 1985 and spending my days in US cities I always seemed to ran into these two delights either in Miami, New York, San Francisco, Seattle or Philadelphia.
These two wonderful dishes can be easily made at home and they will, I promise, be worth the effort that is truly minimal. You should first know Pissaladière and Salade Niçoise contain the “forbidden anchovy” –Oh be quiet and listen! Anchovies are one of the finest (yes I said finest) ingredients that has been used in cooking throughout the ages. Read on.
The anchovy made its first appearance in my life back in the late 1960’s when I was a small boy when my father, who I now consider an anchovy connoisseur, brought them home one Saturday afternoon. I was fascinated by the small oval can and when I first tasted them I instantly considered them a treat. So salty, tart, and distinct I knew they were special, but also adding to this my father treated the event of eating them so ceremoniously that I couldn’t help but be excited. I have always loved ceremony especially if it involves food. My sisters were disgruntled and appalled by the innocent little fish, but what did they know, they wouldn’t eat my mother’s spectacular lentil soup. When Dad was serving up anchovies he and I, the two lone ones on the anchovy team, usually sat at the kitchen table and I would eagerly watch him skillfully use the small key to open the long oval can peeling away the metal strip and exposing the neatly bedded little fish filets that lay in a pool of glistering olive oil Once opened, he’d dumped the small brown fishes on a large plate that sat next to a pile of salt-free saltine crackers and a cold beer that my Dad sipped while forking anchovies on the crackers. I devoured the tasty little fish as quickly as he gave them to me, always begging for more, “One more Dad!” I must have resembled the eager Seals that I loved to watch begging for their little fish treats at the New England Aquarium.
Ever since those days, I’ve loved anchovies, those tasty, salty little sea creatures that still make my tongue salivate and my flipper’s flap with excitement with only the thought of them.
Today when I am yearning for a midnight snack and searching my cabinets for a forgotten Oreo or box of dried apricots, I turn on my heals victoriously when I discover a can of anchovies hiding behind a box of something that needs to be tossed. I never fail to ask myself how a can of anchovies managed to live longer than in a few days in my house and I consider this a phenomenon a true miracle and the workings of some kind of Anchovy Fairy who magically graces me on those looking for “something good to eat” late nights.
Anchovies also made their appearance in my boyhood home on Christmas Eve along with Dad’s famous Baccalà Salad; dried cod that has been soaked for two days to remove salt, boiled and chilled then gently mixed with olive oil, dried cured olives, vinegar peppers, garlic and parsley served alongside another platter of Dad’s famous warm Aioli; warmed olive oil, garlic and anchovies poured over linguini and tossed. One word for this plate of pasta is “fantastico” and it’s not just for Christmas any more. I make Dad’s Aioli at least once a month and I put a new twist on it, I add capers and a hunk of chopped parsley and of course more garlic!
Still not convinced you damn anchovy haters? Well, you should know anchovies are most definitely in your Caesar salad dressing and chefs who have been classically trained use them in their sauces, particularly in tomato based ones. It’s not an uncommon practice to drop one or two in a beef sauce and in a meatloaf. I know a chef who drops a few in mash potatoes and one or two in Chicken Marsala. You need them in Steak Tartare. There a must in Caponta, an eggplant dish graced with capers. I love to drop a few fillets in my sauté pan when I make Broccoli Rabe. Anchovies are an important ingredient in Worcestershire Sauce and in spaghetti alla Puttanesca (everyone should know how to make a good Puttanesca) they’re heavenly in the famous New Orleans Muffuletta Sandwich and what would the Creamy Bagna Cauda be without Anchovies? Bagna Cauda meaning in Italian “warm sauce” or “hot bath.” This is basically a warm olive oil vegetable dip that is slowly warmed with garlic cloves and anchovies until the oil is scented and the garlic soft and the anchovies are dissolved. The Austrians and Germans use them in their Holstein-style schnitzel, a breaded cutlet topped with a fried egg, anchovies and capers (if you never had this dish you must. When I lived in the German neighborhood of Yorkville in Manhattan, one of my favorite Germans restaurants was Heidelberg located on Second Avenue between 85 & 86, they serve a mean Holstein-style schnitzel that was a weekly staple for me).
Do I have to convince you anymore more? Will you please stop this boycott, this horrible nonsensical avoidance? Anchovies are you friends damn it, they will add so much to your cooking adventures and in the long run you will thank me.
This completes Anchovy 101.
Now Monsieur, Madame, and Mademoiselle, are you read to hear the about delectable Pissaladiere and Salad Nicoise?
In 1982 I found myself in Europe, the first weeks I had suffered from culture shock and homesickness, but by the time Jean I had arrived in France, I was way too sophisticated and cool for my own damn good. One night when Jean was feeling fatigued, I ventured out alone. I put on a Beret. Yes I did (I had bought one in Paris days prior). Anyway, I took to the streets of Nice humming the French songs I learned as boy, Frère Jacques, frère Jacques, Dormez-vous? Dormez-vous?Sonnez les matines! Sonnez les matines! Din, dan, don. Din, dan, don. Then there it was, I first saw it in the corner of my eye, I knew it was definitely something to pause for, right in the window of small bistro, on a pedestal (where it belonged!) It was my very first sighting of a Pissaladière! Well, it goes without saying it was the anchovies that attracted me at first and second the golden onions and dried olives. I immediately went inside and bought one.
–Well, are you kidding? My first bit was full of fragrant goodness, the sweetness of the onions, the salty anchovy, the dense earthy-deep-tar flavor of the dried olives, it was beyond belief! I’m even getting excited writing about it, let me catch my breath, okay, let me explain, Pissaladière is classically, according to my hero Julia Child, made with either puff pastry or yeast dough flatted in a pan and covered in onions that have been sautéed in butter and olive oil and seasoned with a bay leaf, thyme, garlic and a pinch of ground clove. On top of this golden bed of goodness you alternate anchovies and dried cured olives and then bake it until the dough is golden brown. More than likely you’ll first pass out from the seductive aromas, but soon after you wake and take your first bite, you’ll be hooked forever on this French favorite and trust me when I say it will seep its luxury into your soul.
After devouring my first Pissaladière I walked towards the water and honestly didn’t think my night could get better, but my God it did and only a few blocks away and at a small unimpressive food stand magically illuminated by the creamy moon. I trembled when I saw my second masterpiece of the night. This my friends was another creation sent to me from the Gods. In front of me at this little old food stand I bought the best sandwich I ever had. This is my journal entry for September 23, 1982: “Tonight I had the best sandwich of my life.” See, it’s recorded and therefore official.
First can I say this, the sandwich was dripping with green olive oil. I mean, hello, really, that sandwich “had me” at “dripping with olive oil” and when I saw the anchovies, I would have given the man selling me the sandwich my kidney if I didn’t have the money to buy it. Okay are you ready for this one? In this prized sandwich was a confluence of dark tuna, tomatoes, onions, olives and (I’ll say it again) anchovies soaked in dark green, virgin olive oil. “Two S’il vous plait” I said. One for me and one for Jean. I sat alone eating my sandwich, my chin oily and my belly more than pleased, the Mediterranean Sea before me. I felt contentment like never before. Jean never got her sandwich because it didn’t make it back to the Pensions.
Salad Nicoise is simple to prepare and in summer when I throw a party I’ll serve only this plentiful salad on my over-sized, beloved, chipped white platter that I found at a yard sale years ago. I like things old and chipped and for me they hold life and stories inside of them, plus it adds to the rustic ambiance I like to create. Chips on platters make things more relaxed, real, cheerful, unpretentious and fun. Take a hammer to your platters people!
Okay, so I take a large bowl and inside I place dark tuna. Next steamed and chilled Haricot Verts (or just green beans) capers, chopped anchovies, olive oil, nicoise olives (any olive will do if need be) chopped onions and minced garlic and fresh cracked pepper. I then squeeze a few lemons over all of this and toss it gently and thoughtfully as not to break up the tuna too much. I then spoon this delightful mixture on my white platter and I alternate slice boiled eggs, tomatoes, cubes of boiled and chilled potatoes and cucumbers around the edges and top. I sprinkled chopped parsley over the entire creation and I serve this with plenty of crusty French bread. You can serve this with a white wine or a pitcher of fresh lemonade. Hell, it so good you can serve it with Cherry Kool-Aid.
Now think about this, all this tantalizing goodness that I am sharing with you came from the dearly loved and wonderful anchovy that graced my life when I was a boy. Embrace the Anchovy.