My culinary management skills were put to the test last month when I was invited to an early-evening cocktail party across town. I happily accepted, made a mental note, and filed it away in my memory until the date of the event. The morning of the party, I realized I had already extended a dinner invitation to friends for that same evening. Note to self, next time use google calendar and avoid double booking!
With no time left to bow out gracefully, the only choice was to rise to the occasion and honour both commitments. I carefully mapped out my dinner menu as well as my route to the first party. I also added a pit stop to grab a ball of buratta on my way across town (what can I say – I like living on the edge!). Timing is critical, especially when you don’t have much to spare, so I put my party clothes on and set off on a mission to prove that the time gods were on my side. It turned out that they were! I got to the party, mingled with guests, and enjoyed a lovely cocktail with our hosts before heading back.
Making it home by the skin of my teeth, I slipped into the kitchen to finish off what I started. Prepping my dishes in advance turned out to be a very wise move. Salads were pre-assembled and tartares were left un-tossed and ready to serve at the last minute. In the end, my slow-cooked beef short ribs saved the day, as I left them to cool in their braising liquid while I attended event number one.
I would be lying if I said that rushing back home from the other end of the city and putting my hostess hat back on was a breeze, but I must admit that it was much easier than I thought it would be. The finishing touches took only a few minutes, and it looked like I had been in the kitchen for hours.
Taking a few minutes to step back, plan, and prepare really does make life easier, whether it be in cooking or just in life in general. I love advanced preparation in the kitchen, especially when hosting a party. Not only does it save a lot of last minute stress, but, more importantly, it gives you the freedom to enjoy the company of your guests.
My rendition of a classic Tuna Niçoise Salad is the perfect make-ahead dish that works beautifully for lunch, dinner, or even as part of a weekend brunch. The tuna can be seasoned and seared several hours before serving. I usually leave it in the freezer to let the fish firm up. This makes it easy to cut into even and uniform slices. I plate everything ahead of time, which means I only need to dress the salad at the last minute. Use the biggest platter you can find to showcase the beauty of this dish – the “oohs and ahhhs” from your guests make it all worth it.
Tuna Niçoise Salad – serves 4
For the tuna:
- 500 grams fresh, sashimi quality tuna (2 ½ to 3 inches thick)
- Maldon or Sea Salt
- I tablespoon olive oil
- 2 teaspoons sesame oil
- 2 spring onions, finely chopped (white and green parts)
- 2 teaspoons cumin powder
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Extra olive oil for searing the tuna
For the salad:
- 200 grams baby gems lettuce (or any other lettuce of your choice)
- 1 ½ tablespoons grainy Dijon mustard (a l’ancienne)
- 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
- 2 tablespoons runny honey
- 2 teaspoons canola or grapeseed oil (or any neutral flavored oil)
- 1 teaspoon lemon juice
Dressing – whisk together both mustards with the oil. Add honey and the lemon juice to combine. Set aside until ready to drizzle over the lettuce.
For the eggs and vegetables:
- 4 organic eggs
- 200 grams fine green beans, stems removed
- 300 grams baby new potatoes
- Dijon mustard
- Olive oil
- Lemon juice
- Salt and pepper
- 10 caper berries (optional)
- A handful of black olives (optional)
Directions for each ingredient:
Preparing your fresh tuna – Let the tuna loin sit for 15 minutes at room temperature before cooking. If you’re wondering why the tuna in the photos has squared off edges, it’s because I trim it to ensure that all sides cook evenly. I save the “scraps” for another use like tuna tartare or fish cakes. You can disregard this step, but it does make for a visually appealing presentation.
Lightly coat with olive oil and sesame oil all over the tuna, season with salt on all sides.
Add the green onion, making sure it sticks onto the tuna’s surface. Then pat on the cumin powder and season with black pepper. Make sure all the sides have been coated and seasoned well.
Heat olive oil in a non-stick frying pan over high heat. Add the tuna, and cook for forty-five seconds to one minute per side.
Do not fidget with the tuna until it is ready to turn – what you’re looking for is a nice, brown sear on the outside with a beautiful, rare pink interior. The whole process takes 2-3 minutes, so don’t step away from the stove.
Remove from the pan, let cool, and cut into slices. For perfectly even slices, freeze the tuna for a couple of hours, then slice through with a sharp knife. If you’ve frozen it for too long (it can happen!), let it thaw slightly before cutting into it.
For the perfect runny eggs… Fill a pot with water, bring to a rolling boil (just make sure there is enough water to just cover your eggs). Carefully add the eggs, one at a time. Allow eggs to boil in the water for exactly 1 minute. Remove pot from heat, cover, and let the eggs hang out in the water for exactly 6 ½ to 7 minutes. You’ll need a timer for this. Once the time is up, immediately plunge the eggs into a bowl of very cold water to stop the cooking process. Peel, split in half, and add a pinch of salt over the yolks when ready to serve.
For the green beans, blanch in boiling salted water for 3 to 4 minutes, then plunge into cold water to stop the cooking. Drain, and toss the green beans in a bit of olive oil and a squeeze of lemon. Season with salt and pepper.
For the potatoes, clean off any debris. Boil or steam the potatoes until cooked through. For the dressing, whisk together 1½ tablespoons olive oil with 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard, 1 teaspoon cider vinegar or lemon juice and a fat pinch of salt. Cut the potatoes in half, and while still warm, toss the potatoes with the dressing. This will make sure all the liquids soak into the potatoes.
For the salad dressing, whisk together both mustards with the oil. Add honey and the lemon juice to combine. Set aside until ready to drizzle over the lettuce.
On a large plate or platter, arrange the tuna slices in a domino fashion exposing the rare, interior part of the tuna as well as the seared crust.
Group each ingredient individually around the plate. Drizzle the vinaigrette on the salad, and you’re ready to go.
Photos by Tara Atkinson Photography