CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Lots of dishes that are thought of as either traditionally Italian or traditionally French are in fact both. Pesto, a mash-up of basil and garlic, becomes pistou when you cross the border. A dinner of boiled meats is either bollito misto or pot-au-feu, depending on which side of the border you're on. Same for tomato-based seafood soup -- zuppa di pesce in Italy, bouillabaisse in France.
Salade nicoise and vitello tonnato are not cross-cultural replicas of each other like the dishes mentioned above, but they do share certain components. Both have sauces based on olive oil, both frequently come with boiled eggs, both have salty or tangy garnishes and both use tuna as a condiment.
Both are great summer meals that deserve to be eaten more often.
Salade nicoise is a meal in a bowl. It includes lettuces, tossed in vinaigrette, and topped with boiled new potatoes, green beans, tomatoes, anchovies, hard-boiled eggs, olives and tuna. It is not just a mish-mash of disparate ingredients thrown together in a bowl. Each subtle ingredient provides filling bulk and has a counterpoint in another ingredient, which give the dish spark.
Simple boiled potatoes are given life by anchovies' saline funk.
Crisp, squeaky green beans meet yielding, sweet, acidic tomatoes.
Boiled eggs, which need, at a minimum, salt and pepper, are matched with salty, briny tuna.
It's a perfectly harmonious summer meal, and one that's not difficult to make. But the number of ingredients can be a little intimidating and, for some, can relegate salade nicoise to the type of dish best saved for restaurants.
Vitello tonatto, by contrast, has only two primary ingredients -- veal and tuna -- but is made at home even less often.
Veal loin is slowly braised until just cooked through and then left to cool in its cooking liquid. Meanwhile, tuna is poached in a bath of olive oil. The olive oil is cooled and used to make a mayonnaise. Then the tuna is mashed up and reunited with the olive oil in the mayonnaise to make a rich, creamy tuna sauce.
The cold veal is then sliced thin, layered with the tuna sauce and chilled overnight. The rosy, tender veal combines and intermingles with the more assertive tuna sauce, yielding a whole greater than the sum of its parts.
But veal loin and fresh tuna are tough to find and expensive. And you have to plan at least a day in advance. So, despite its simplicity, no one ever makes vitello tonnato at home.
So drop the inconvenient and the extraneous and keep what's truly essential about the dish: the tuna sauce, which, luckily, can be made from canned tuna to nearly the same effect. But you must use good quality tuna, packed in olive oil, usually imported from Italy, Portugal or Spain.
Then take that tuna sauce and combine it with the best of salade nicoise.
Drop the lettuce, which, let's be honest, is just filler.
Keep the tomatoes and the eggs.
The rest is up to you. If you're hungry or are feeding a crowd, keep the potatoes. If you're at Capitol Market and there are mountains of half-runner beans (there are), pick some up. Or don't, they're not essential.
Other summer vegetables, cooked and then cooled to room temperature, would not be out of place here. Grilled zucchini, roasted or boiled beets, blanched broccoli or snow peas, sliced (uncooked) avocado or cucumber and corn-off-the-cob would all work well, but again, none are essential.
A couple caveats/suggestions:
Do not make a dish like this that highlights raw tomatoes with inferior supermarket tomatoes. Tomatoes are the ultimate seasonal ingredient. They should be bright red throughout. They should yield a little bit when squeezed. They should never be refrigerated. They should smell like tomatoes without having to be cut into.
Bad tomatoes are pale, inert and drab. Good tomatoes inspire odes. When you cut into a tomato you should see, as Pablo Neruda wrote, "living flesh/red/viscera ... its convolutions/its canals/its remarkable amplitude/and abundance,/no pit,/no husk,/no leaves or thorns,/the tomato offers/its gift/of fiery color/and cool completeness."
Don't hard-boil your eggs. Hard-boiled eggs, cooked for 11 or 12 minutes, produce yolks that are chalky and entirely unappealing unless they're deviled or similarly rescued by mayonnaise in egg salad.
Instead, cook your eggs for eight minutes. Eight-minute eggs have whites that are fully set, but jiggly instead of bouncy. More like an overstuffed beanbag than a tennis ball. And the yolks are viscous but not runny, solid but malleable, like a gummy bear that's been left in the sun.