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Food: Nice one

A salade Nicoise without garlic doesn't deserve the name, says Simon Hopkinson
The first work I did for this magazine in its present format was an article on salade Nicoise. Recently, I have had many a discussion - well, argument to be frank, over the constituents of a "true" Nice salad.

The most recent disagreement has been over the inclusion of garlic. Now, to my mind, garlic is so de rigueur as a seasoning here that not to include it is fully missing the point of the whole composition. Along with a reasonably good olive oil, chopped garlic is as important a flavour in the salad's dressing as a couple of spindly spring onions and some home- made salad cream are in an English high-tea salad.

Then there is the secondary rumpus - tuna. I never understand why people like cooked, tinned tuna at all (half the time, I don't actually believe they do). The pontificators drone that la veritable salade Nicoise could not even be considered without the inclusion of these flakes - or unsightly chunks in the more loutish renditions - of deeply boring, tinned fish. All I can say is, give me more of the tinned, pink anchovy fillet than a few forkings of tuna from a smart-looking can. Tuna is best eaten raw with Japanese horseradish and a bathing of soy. Then, it is not only delicious, but one of the very finest dishes in the world.

The description "salad", to many, still means something that includes lettuce leaves. That is not to say that the term has not also strayed in the other direction. I have eaten "salads" of mussels; of fillets of red mullet the size of a squashed little finger (is it really necessary to bone a fish of these dimensions?); and also from such things as crunchy sweetbreads - or "croustillant de ris de veau" as it is known in French menu-speak. Actually, this epithet "crunchy" is getting jolly common on the continental gastronomic hurdy-gurdy these days. We need a few more "sloppys" and the odd "loose", I feel, before we end up with damaged gums.

But these so-called salads are not really that at all. More often than not, there is a neat little teetering pile of the advertised ingredient, a minuscule ruff of lollo rosso, one listing sprig of chervil and a larger amount of sauce that you might genuinely expect in a salad. But there you go. Most of them have been very good, I have to admit, but they ain't been a salad. Mind you, I wouldn't exactly know what to call them. A composition? However, I did once see a dish of different bits of duck, which was jauntily entitled "a declension". I kid you not, mon brave.

I have always thought that a few crisp leaves are necessary in a Nicoise salad, but, of late, I am not sure. Essentially, it is simply a salad of vegetables. But if you do decide to use a verdant stalk of some sort, introduce a few sprigs of rocket (but not too much), which seems somehow appropriate to the region and can be nice, together with some fronds of mildly aniseed-flavoured sprigs of chervil, and a few basil leaves. The herbs will add flavour, too, with chervil, for once, being generously utilised for itself and not just flung willy-nilly as a garnish over everything.

I have always enjoyed vegetable salads; soft and recently warm from a last-minute cooking of the ingredients. Take the perennial one made from waxy potatoes: use the rare, pink fir apple variety, preferably cooked in its skin then quickly peeled whilst still warm. Dress with a vinaigrette made from mustard, a splash of good vinegar, seasoning, and an oil that will not dominate the proceedings. One must fully understand that olive oil is not always the appropriate lubrication. The dressing should simply smear the potatoes and not be claggy - make it in a food processor or liquidiser, so that the consistency becomes that of single cream, homogenising in an instant.

A recipe for this potato salad will follow next week, along with a similar one using green beans and anchovies - for me, the soul of a salade Nicoise. There will also be a sweet-and-sour salad of courgettes, a warm fennel salad cooked in the Greek style - or, more familiarly, a la Grecque, and, of course, my own, very personal recipe for salade Nicoise, repeated for the first time in two years. The anticipation will surely torture you for seven whole days.

Following this vegetarian fiesta will be a further scarlet orgy of tomato recipes to celebrate the harvest of these (lately) warm September weeks, but there will also be meat and fish included, so don't feel you have been too deprived of protein

`The Prawn Cocktail Years' by Simon Hopkinson & Lindsey Bareham is published on 24 October. To reserve a pre-publication copy at the special price of pounds 15 p&p free, call 0181- 324 5700