book club veg
Gorgeous vegetables await their grand entrance.

“What are you making?”

I’m fixing dinner for my monthly book club, and the husband wants to know what I’m serving. (Meaning, he wants to know what he’s eating later tonight.)

“Salad,” I tell him.

“Oh.”

The poor man. He’s disappointed, I can tell. He was hoping for a three-pronged production of protein, starch and veg.

But you know what? That’s exactly what he’s getting!

I’m making a composed salad for our monthly gathering — big platters of tender lettuces, blanched green beans, hard boiled eggs, steamed potatoes, crispy cucumbers and radishes, and … the pièce de résistance thick slices of perfectly seared tuna. It’s my personal take on the classic tuna Nicoise.

I love to mix things up when we entertain. Whether it’s serving gazpacho in shot glasses or humble chicken to the bosses, it’s fun to keep guests guessing. And “salad” does just that. People may envision overdressed greens and supermarket-bland vegetables, but a thoughtful salad can be a revelatory meal.

bookclub salad
One partygoer’s plate. (We would have photographed the platters, but my book club ladies dove into them before anyone could say “cheese.”)

Like this one. It’s infinitely adaptable (substitute beef or chicken for the fish if you trend carnivore; omit the meat and eggs altogether for a vegan rendition). It highlights what’s available seasonally. And it lets your guests pick and choose from its bounty so they have exactly what they want on their individual plates.

Yes, this is a salad that can command center stage. That plays its main-dish role with aplomb. A salad that is definitely ready for its closeup, Mr. DeMille.

My composed Nicoise is a hit with the ladies. And when I come in the kitchen once book club is over, I can tell it’s a hit with the husband, too.

“That was good,” he says, his mouth still full. “You should make it for our next party.”

Dinner Party Salad (serves 6-8)

When it comes to composed salads, you’re limited only by your imagination. Choose whatever kind of protein you like. Ditto the vegetables. Just make sure they’re the freshest you can find.

The beauty of this dish is that you can make most of the components ahead of time. Cook the potatoes, the eggs and the green beans in the morning (or even the day before). Cut the vegetables the afternoon of your gathering. You’ll only have to sear the tuna and assemble the salad before your guests arrive.

Dress this salad and all its components with the dressing of your choice, be it a good commercial brand (I love Newman’s Own Oil & Vinegar) or the vinaigrette here, courtesy of the late, great Gourmet magazine. (Make the vinaigrette a day ahead, too.)

  • 5 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
  • 2 small garlic cloves, minced
  • 3/4 teaspoon sugar
  • 3/4 cup olive oil
  • 6 small potatoes
  • 6 eggs
  • 1- to 1 1/2-pounds green beans, trimmed
  • 2 packages assorted organic lettuces (about a pound)
  • 1 package radishes, thinly sliced
  • 2 cucumbers, peeled and sliced
  • 3 tomatoes, cut into sixths
  • 1 red and 1 yellow pepper, cored and sliced into strips
  • 1 jar country olives
  • 3 scallions, finely chopped
  • 2- to 2 1/2-pounds fresh tuna (MAKE SURE THIS IS THE FRESHEST YOU CAN FIND! If it smells like tuna when it’s raw, it’s too old to use!)

Combine the vinegar, lemon juice, mustard, garlic and sugar in a small bowl. Whisk in the olive oil, then season with salt and pepper. Set aside.

Place the potatoes in a saucepan filled with salted water. Bring to a boil, then cook until the potatoes are tender. Drain until cool to the touch, then slice into 1/2-inch rounds.

Organic eggs have the best flavor.
Organic eggs have the best flavor.

Place the eggs in another saucepan of water. Bring the water to a boil, then turn off the heat and cover the pan with a tight-fitting lid. Let the eggs steep for 12 minutes. Drain and rinse under very cold water. Peel, then cut each egg in half lengthwise.

Fill a final pan with water. Bring it to a boil, then salt it generously. Add the green beans and cook for 7 minutes. Drain, then immediately plunge the beans in ice water to stop their cooking. Drain again, and dry the beans on paper towels. (If you do these steps ahead of time, store everything in airtight containers in the refrigerator.)

Four minutes on one side, two minutes on the other, and you'll have tuna that's beautifully tender and pink inside.
Four minutes on one side, two minutes on the other, and you’ll have tuna that’s beautifully tender and pink inside.

Rub the tuna with olive oil, then season it with salt and pepper. Heat a grill pan until it’s scorchingly hot. Add the tuna and sear for 4 minutes. Turn and sear the other side for 2 minutes. Transfer the tuna to a plate and let it rest while you assemble the salad.

Place the greens in a large bowl and toss them with some of the vinaigrette.

Set aside 2 tablespoons of the vinaigrette, then toss the other vegetables, the potatoes and the green beans with the remainder.

Arrange the vegetables atop the lettuces. Add the eggs, and drizzle them with a couple of teaspoons of the reserved vinaigrette. Scatter the olives around everything.

Using a very sharp knife, thickly slice the tuna. Place it atop the salad and drizzle with the remaining vinaigrette. Serve to oohs and ahhs.

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