There’s a funny thing about kids and food combinations. At our house, olives are good, and bread is good. But olive bread might as well be poison. Why? I have no idea.
A few years ago, another parent gave me the cookbook Dinner: A Love Story, by Jenny Rosenstrach. It’s full of recipes and rules for cooking for a family, and I’ve had consistent success with its tips for pleasing adventurous grown-ups and picky eaters at the same time.
My favorite chapter is about “deconstructed dinner.” The approach is exactly what it sounds like: “Take a favorite meal and serve it in its individual components so the kids can pick what they like before any green specks or offensive sauces get mixed in,” Rosenstrach writes. In other words, the adults eat all the foods mixed together, and the kids eat almost exactly the same foods, but separate. The rule is simple but genius.
I remembered the rule recently when I was looking for a new protein- and veggie-heavy family pleaser. This summer, I pressure-canned 20 pounds of a friend’s catch of bluefin tuna. If you’ve ever put anything up, you know how thrilling it is to reach into the pantry at this time of year and bring out something that reminds you of summer. That possibility led to Niçoise salad: tuna is exactly the kind of oil-rich fish you want on a hearty salad. And though we might need to adjust a few ingredients for winter (this time of year, replace cherry tomatoes with sun-dried ones), it would be hard to find a better recipe to deconstruct.
Salad, for one of my kids, is a nonstarter. But potatoes? Adored. Cherry tomatoes? Devoured. The same goes for cucumbers, olives, hard boiled eggs, and green beans. Those ingredients alone make a fantastic dinner lineup, and that’s before we’ve even gotten to the spinach or tuna.
Which brings me to another of Rosenstrach’s ideas — “rebranding.” My kids have had Niçoise salad at a restaurant, and they didn’t like it. So, instead, the other night we made smorgasbord — a Hay household all-time greatest hit that involves putting together a big platter of assorted foods and piling your plate with favorites.
I piled mine with hard-boiled eggs, potatoes, sun-dried tomatoes, green beans, and olives on a bed of spinach, topped it with bluefin tuna, and drizzled it all with olive oil and a sweet, thick balsamic glaze (which is what you want instead of vinegar for this salad). The kids made their plates their way, and we each had a well-received — if slightly different — Niçoise dinner.
Deconstructed Niçoise Salad
A few years ago, for WCAI’s Local Food Report, I interviewed Ken Mason of Harwich, who cans his own bluefin tuna. After I watched Ken and realized how simple it was, I bought a pressure canner. I finally got around to making my first batch of canned bluefin this summer. It is excellent, and I’m including the recipe here for you to tuck away for when the tuna are back. Meanwhile, there are some good olive oil-packed tunas out there — it’s worth choosing a high quality one.
½ lb. baby spinach, arugula, or other mixed salad greens
3-4 medium potatoes
½ cup pitted Niçoise or other olives
1 pint cherry tomatoes or a small jar of sun-dried tomatoes
1 small cucumber
¼ lb. green beans
½ lb. good olive oil-packed tuna
Flaky sea salt, such as Maldon
Prepare the ingredients ahead of time: hard boil the eggs and let them cool; cut the potatoes into ½-inch cubes, boil until just tender, and let cool; snap the ends off the green beans, steam them, keeping them al dente, then cool. Halve the cucumber lengthwise and slice it thin.
At mealtime, arrange a generous handful of salad greens in a wide, shallow bowl for those family members who want to eat this meal as a salad. For everything else, get out a large serving plate and set it up with distinct areas for each ingredient — peel and halve the eggs, pile on the drained, cooled potatoes, put the olives into a little bowl, halve the cherry tomatoes, arrange the cucumbers and green beans — in other words, make it look like a nice party platter.
Let everyone arrange their “salads” to taste, dress as desired, and sprinkle with salt.
Homemade Pressure-Canned Tuna
To tackle this project, you’ll need a pressure canner and as many wide-mouth, one-pint Mason jars as you have pounds of tuna. As with regular canning, you need lids with fresh seals every time, and you have to follow carefully the instructions that come with your pressure canner. I used Atlantic bluefin caught in local waters — its marbling makes it special.
1 lb. fresh tuna loin
2 tsp. salt
½ to 1 tsp. red pepper flakes
2 Tbsp. olive oil
Cut up the tuna into large pieces roughly the size of your jars. Pack a pound into each jar, with as few pieces as possible making up each pound — avoid air bubbles as much as possible, not because the fish will spoil, but because the tuna will oxidize from pink to grey and make it less appealing. Sprinkle with the salt and red pepper flakes and drizzle the olive oil over top.
Wipe the rim of each jar with a clean cloth dipped in boiling water. Put the lids on and put the jars into the pressure canner. Process for an hour and 50 minutes at 10 pounds pressure, according to manufacturer’s instructions.