By Bonnie Fishman
You all know what I’m talking about, right? People from your past who have traveled through life right there beside you even though you haven’t actually been sitting side by side on “a park bench like bookends,” to quote Paul Simon. How many of us have the luxury to still live in the same zip code. let alone the same time zone, as our old friends? It doesn’t really matter, because no matter where you are on the planet, these people can dredge up an old story about you that will make you burst out laughing, bring you to melancholy tears, or fill you with past regrets. You finish each other’s sentences. You feel like you were never apart and pick up as if no time has passed between visits. This is unique to old friend relationships.
A person is lucky to have at least one friend like this. However, if they have a handful, they are truly blessed. I have at least three girlfriends from childhood (not counting my sisters and my cousins, who are like sisters). Debbi, an architect now in Phoenix, and Suzi a psychotherapist now in New York, have been my friends since first and second grade, respectively. Staying close all the the time we were in high school and University of Michigan, on into adulthood, all pregnant with boys in the same year. We saw each other through our different careers, family life, ups and downs, and of course traveled together. Our most memorable trip was in July, 2005, when the three of us flew from our respective cities to meet in Rome, then on to Sorrento, Italy, the Amalfi Coast and back. Did I mention Debbi speaks fluent Italian? That sure came in handy. We had a great time being together and sharing the wonderment of Italian food, art, architecture, and scenery.
My “oldest” friend is Liss, short for Elissa. We go back to in utero. Our moms were best friends, pregnant with us at the same time and we were born four months apart. We bonded in a crib. I didn’t know we weren’t blood relatives until we were 10. When we were young, Liss’ mom would drop her off at our house on Friday after school to stay the whole weekend. What was one more girl added to our pack of four? Liss slept on the floor in between my little sister, Cindy, and me. We played all night and into the next day. Never an argument. We spent countless summers at my Dad’s summer camp, sharing a cabin, bunk beds next to each other. We were both very athletic so enjoyed many sports together, still do, swimming in particular. We share a love for dogs, cooking, walking, travel. This touching lyric from Paul Simon’s 1968 song (written when we were just sixteen) has told our story and the story of many others:
“Can you imagine us
Years from today
Sharing a park bench quietly?
How terribly strange
to be seventy”
So, I’m expecting my dearest old friend to visit me after the long and continuing pandemic. They, Liss and her husband, Steven, are arriving at 1 pm on a warm August Tuesday. Being a chef, now the fun really starts. What to serve for our first “breaking bread” together? Hundreds of ideas run through my head. I swam a good mile contemplating this seemingly silly dilemma. But it was important to me, let’s get it right. Aha! Fresh Tuna Niçoise Salad with a loaf of freshly baked, crusty, slow fermented bread and butter. No sweat, I got this! I go to work the day before.
Fresh Tuna Niçoise Salad is not hard to make, just time-consuming. All of the many parts of the salad are prepped individually before the whole composition comes together. Another thing to note about this salad, there are many possible variations with most of the components. The tuna can be swapped out with fresh salmon or swordfish. Asparagus can stand in for the green beans. I’ve even replaced the potatoes with marinated white beans. Change up the dressing from this mustard vinaigrette to a more citrus forward or balsamic dressing. Add different fresh herbs, basil, rosemary, tarragon, to the vinaigrette to give it that special touch. Let your creativity flow. And please let us know what you serve your own old friends when you’re lucky enough to host them!
Fresh Tuna Niçoise Salad
Yield: 6 salads
2 garlic cloves
1/3 c. white wine or tarragon vinegar
1 Tbs. Dijon mustard
1 c. extra virgin olive oil
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. fresh ground black pepper
1 1/2 - 2 lb. fresh tuna steaks
1 1/2 lb. green beans, stems removed
1 1/2 lb. redskin potatoes
2 Tbs. fresh chopped parsley
4 ripe tomatoes, core removed, cut into wedges
1 head Romaine, shredded into 1” thick pieces
4 hard-boiled eggs, cut into 4 wedges each
1/2 c. Niçoise or Kalamata olives
Make the vinaigrette: Mince the garlic in a food processor. Add the vinegar and mustard. Whirl to combine. With the motor running, drizzle in the oil through the feed tube. Blend in the salt and pepper.
Pour about half a cup of vinaigrette into a shallow non-corrosive casserole. Reserve remaining dressing. Add the tuna steaks to the dish. Turn to coat. Marinate at room temperature for 1 hour.
Blanch the green beans in a large pot of salted water until tender, about 6-7 minutes. Drain. Rinse under cold water. Drain very well and put in a bowl. Moisten with some vinaigrette. Season with salt and pepper. Reserve.
Boil the potatoes in salted water until tender. When cool enough to handle, slice the potatoes into 1/4” thick slices. Put in a bowl and toss with some dressing. Add the chopped parsley. Season with salt and pepper. Reserve.
Grill the tuna (or sear it in a hot cast iron pan) until still pink in the center, for 3-4 minutes per side, depending on the thickness of the fish and the intensity of the heat. Allow the fish to rest on a cutting board tented with foil while assembling the salad.
Put the lettuce in a large bowl. Toss in enough dressing to moisten. Season with salt and fresh ground black pepper. Place some lettuce on each dinner plate. Slice the tuna crosswise into 1/2” thick slices. Arrange the tuna in one section, the potatoes next to the tuna, then the green beans, tomatoes and egg wedges. Garnish with olives. Serve at room temperature.
Bonnie Fishman attended the Cordon Bleu Cookery School in London. Later, she owned and operated Bonnie’s Patisserie in Southfield, Mich. and Bonnie’s Kitchen and Catering in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. She has taught cooking for over 35 years and created hundreds of recipes. She is now living in Northern California.