In most places, tomato salad is a symbol of summer – of warm, sunny days and cool, refreshing meals. But in Murcia, tomato salad is a year-round treat. And I’m not talking about salad made with those flavorless, greenhouse-produced tomatoes that can be found in the markets even in the winter.
I’m talking about the ensalada murciana (Murcian salad), yet another genius combination of Mediterranean pantry staples that is made, not with fresh, but with canned tomatoes, which are roughly chopped and then tossed together with oil-packed tuna, onions, hard-boiled eggs, cured olives, and, of course, a good glug of extra virgin olive oil.
Why is this called the Murcian salad? As is the case with many local dishes, it is impossible to pinpoint the exact origin, but the salad was obviously ubiquitous enough to take on the name of the city itself. This makes sense, because tomatoes (both fresh and canned) are emblematic of the huerta, the fertile lands within and surrounding the city that have long been recognized for their agricultural potential. Indeed, traces of Roman irrigation systems have been discovered in the area, which were expanded and improved upon by the Arabs who founded and ruled the city for over 800 years. Tomatoes of course came later, brought back from the Americas by the Spanish Conquistadors in the 16th century. Tomatoes thrive in Murcia’s huerta, so it is logical that canning eventually became an important local industry, too.
I love the tomato-packed ensalada murciana because it is easy to make and can be thrown together in any season. Served chilled in the summer, it refreshes like gazpacho, and at room temperature in winter, it adds a splash of sun and sea (and Murcia) to the table.
This salad can be served as a tapa or side dish, or as a light dinner or lunch. It improves as it sits, so should be made at least an hour (and up to a day) before you plan on serving it.
Most home cooks and bars toss all of the ingredients together, which of course helps the flavors meld. Yet some high-end restaurants artfully arrange their top-quality tomatoes, tuna, olives and eggs on a plate and then sprinkle them with sea salt flakes and drizzle the olive oil over the top. This is a good option for luxury canned tomatoes and tuna, where you really want each ingredient to shine.
The steps here are just basic guidelines, because it really doesn’t matter what you add first (or how much you add) to the bowl. Feel free to improvise as they do here in Murcia, as all of the quantities can be adjusted according to your preferences or what you have on hand.
For 4-6 people:
- 1/2 – 1 small onion, thinly sliced
- 1 28-ounce can of good quality tomatoes, drained
- 1 5-ounce can of tuna packed in olive oil, drained
- 2 hard-boiled eggs, chopped
- 1/2 cup small black olives (such as Niçoise – see note)
- Extra virgin olive oil, to taste (start with 2 tablespoons and add more as you like)
- Salt, to taste
Soak the thinly sliced onion in a bowl of ice water for ten minutes to make it easier to digest. Drain and set aside.
Roughly chop the tomatoes (I do this right over the bowl) and place them in a large bowl along with their juice. Break up the tuna and add it to the bowl. Stir in the onions, chopped eggs and olives. Add salt to taste (I don’t tend to add much, since the tuna, tomatoes and olives already contain salt). Drizzle as much olive oil as you want over the salad and then toss everything together. Cover and chill for at least one hour before serving for the flavor to develop.
Remove the salad from the refrigerator at least 15 minutes before serving (depending on the season) so that it is not ice cold (which dulls the flavors). In fact, in the winter, I prefer to eat ensalada murciana at room temperature. Serve with plenty of bread for dipping.
Notes: The traditional olive used is a small, black (and brine-cured) Spanish variety called cuquillo. If you cannot find cuquillo olives, Niçoise olives are a good substitute.