Opening up Memories with a Can of Tuna - No. 144
What started as ramblings about easy summer dinners involving tuna reveals favorite people and recipes along the way.
IF YOU EVER THOUGHT CANNED TUNA was just about tuna salad, you need to pack up and see the world.
Tuna’s not about cooking. It’s about eating very well.
Welcome to my little treatise on tuna with recipe ideas in bold.
Pan bagnat, I love you
Two weeks ago I headed to Birmingham for book research and to fete a belated birthday at Chez Fonfon, Frank Stitt’s fabu French brasserie.
I ordered a glass of bubbles, my husband a Negroni, and saving myself for their legendary coconut cake, asked for just a wee bowl of French olives to get started. Hubby threw all caution to the wind and chose the chicken liver pate. Nice choice, nodded the server.
We had finished up the pate when Chef Stitt sends us something on the house, code for something that’s on the menu and you were an idiot not to order it. I’ve learned that code, and I am sure chefs around the world put a lot of work into creating a new menu and when they’ve got something great on it and a cookbook author walks in and doesn’t order it, she’s going to try it…
And it was the most wonderful open-face tuna sandwich imaginable. The French call it pan bagnat. There are countless renditions, and David Lebovitz just recently talked at length about pan bagnat or pan bagna, but sorry, this Nashville girl raised on creamed tuna (I’ll get to that in a minute) gives a thumbs up to all of them. In fact, I volunteer right here to judge a pan bagnat taste-off because I love this Provençal combination of flavors so much.
Good toasted bread, garlicky mayo with a smidge of anchovy in it (the Green Goddess would be amazing!), flakes of oil-packed tuna, Nicoise (which autocorrect keeps trying to change to Nicole’s) olives, jammy cooked small egg (i.e. soft-cooked), basil leaves, and a slab of roasted red pepper. Perfecto!
We inhaled it within seconds. Okay, a minute or two, splitting it down the middle and shoving halves in our mouths, no time for pulling out my phone. I did find this photo on Chez Fonfon’s Instagram:
My mom told me a lot of things about the world, but she didn’t tell me there was a BIG TUNA world out there.
Actually, there is a really good fish restaurant in Georgetown, South Carolina, called the Big Tuna. Our in laws/friends the Osteens took us there, and the fried flounder is amazing.
When I look at photos of my son in the not one, but two ball caps his sister bought him at the Big Tuna, I see joy and a guy who was always the first in the car for a family trip.
The youngest, he suffered from Home Alone syndrome, which is different than FOMO. I think he was scared we’d forget to take him along so he was first up and packed on trip day. He also loves fresh seafood and is a fabulous cook of it. And yes, he eats canned tuna. He eats just about anything…moms love that.
No surprise that much of the world has built dinner around affordable, accessible tuna. Especially in the summertime.
It’s genius how the Mediterranean kitchen employs tuna to speed the meal when there are rose wines to sip, someone’s deep blue eyes to look into, or olives to press into green gold. Better things to do than cook!
I admit to a fascination about tuna, especially when it intersects with Mediterranean cooking. And I love to detect it in recipes.
‘’I think there’s tuna in there,’’ is something I’ve said more than once.
Take Marcella Hazan’s Vitello tonnato. It’s cold sliced veal with a dreamy and creamy tuna sauce on top. Marcella called it ‘’one of the loveliest and most versatile of all cold dishes.’’ Amen.
It’s essentially a tuna mayonnaise you pour over cold, sliced roasted veal. Absolutely, you can substitute roasted chicken.
Here’s how: Place a drained can of tuna that was packed in oil (more flavorful), 5 anchovies, 1 cup olive oil, 3 tablespoons lemon juice, and 3 tablespoons capers in a blender and puree until you’re dying to taste a bite. Then you fold that into homemade mayonnaise or good store-bought and pour it over roasted chicken slices or tomatoes.
Then there is Michael Field’s White Bean Salad with Tunafish in the Italian Manner from his book, All Manner of Food (1970). You drain canned cannellini beans and top them with an olive oil and lemon juice vinaigrette and just before serving arrange tuna on top, sprinkled with parsley. Choose the dark-meat tuna, he says. Sometimes it’s labeled ‘’bluefin.’’
And of course, Tuna Nicoise! I share a faster version of that classic in the recipes below.
Tuna and I go way back
When my husband came for dinner before we were married, and there were no provisions in house, I quickly turned to tuna to save the day. I had pasta, a can of white beans, and Parmesan and created a riff on pasta e fagioli, which is white beans and pasta and should be on everyone’s dinner rotation.
Once we were married and I was writing the book, The Dinner Doctor, and life was very different than those years I noshed on tuna in Italy, that simple date night meal inspired two child-friendly dinners.
One was called Tuesday Night White Beans, an obvious Michael Field riff, where you saute onion and garlic, then add white beans and let them simmer in chicken broth. At the table, you top with pesto, flakes of tuna, tomatoes, whatever the kids will eat. And then there was the Pasta Shells with Tuna, Lemon & Olives, like the date dinner minus the beans with grated lemon zest, capers, and a handful of fresh basil.
But actually, tuna and I go further back…
When not yet in high school, my favorite recipe was creamed tuna with peas, or shall I call it Creamed Tuna in the Nashville Manner?
I’d make a homemade white sauce (béchamel it would be called in Paris) fold in canned tuna (Starkist was the only brand my mother bought), and spoon it into these little bread cups I learned to bake thanks to the Betty Crocker’s children’s cookbook. You trimmed the crust off slices of bread, buttered them, and pushed them into a muffin cup and baked until crispy. Then you ladled the creamed tuna into the cups and served buttered canned peas to the side.
Very mid-century modern fare, indeed!
And I had my fair share of tuna salad, too, growing up. Early on, in the warm South where you weren’t always assured of refrigeration, I was taught tuna salad was a safer bet than chicken salad on a restaurant menu. What with salmonella…
But honestly, I seldom order tuna salad unless it’s a tuna melt. What tuna salad isn’t improved by a blanket of melted cheese? My favorite tuna melt is at Mitchell Delicatessen in East Nashville.
The real reason we didn’t order tuna salad sandwiches when we dined out was we made better tuna salad at home. It’s still the case.
My mother’s tuna salad was simple and yet specific:
Begin with Albacore, packed in water.
Drain off the water and flake tuna into a bowl. Squeeze a couple teaspoons of fresh lemon juice over it to refresh it. Season with pepper.
Add something soft, like a hard-cooked egg, preferably still warm from cooking.
Add crunchy things - a tablespoon of minced sweet onion, a tablespoon or two of minced celery, a tablespoon of drained capers (she never added capers. I added that) and a healthy tablespoon or two of chopped parsley.
Add sliced green olives, her signature.
And just enough mayo to pull it together.
She would peel and core a whole ripe tomato per person. Slice an X into each one, not going all the way down. Add a big spoonful of tuna salad. Or pile onto soft bread and serve with Lay’s potato chips and Coca-Cola in a small glass bottle.
And my husband’s style of making tuna salad? Add pickle relish and double the mayo. From date night pasta to married person’s tuna salad, oh dear.
Don’t know why too much mayonnaise turns me off in tuna salad. One of the best tuna salads of memory was in Portugal after we’d completed a long walk, and our local guide had her brother make us lunch. It was the most mayonnaisey tuna salad I have ever eaten and covered in fresh oregano and served with a platter of ripe tomatoes. Bread to the side. And again, no photos, because we inhaled it.
Lessons learned: Good tuna packed in oil has more flavor. And anything eaten after hiking eight miles tastes better.
Stranger Things involve tuna, too
As I finish up this piece, I’m getting a bit hungry, but I know I’ve got a couple cans of tuna in the pantry. My favorite brand is called Wild Planet and it’s supposed to be more environmentally conscious so the nets don’t catch the poor dolphins.
And I’d better mention that I don’t eat tuna every day, so don’t worry about my mercury levels. Or are we worrying about heavy metals anymore? I can’t even get swordfish in Nashville.
I did read that tuna salad was born because people wanted to conserve, which doesn’t surprise me. People have saved the kitchen sink to fold into tuna salad, and yes, the dreaded tuna salad gelatin mold reminds me vaguely of Stranger Things.
In a Smithsonian magazine article, Megan Elias of Boston University called the tuna sandwich a ‘’taste of home for working women.’’
I don’t know about you, but it only takes one time to tote a tuna sandwich from home and never do that again.
How many of us have quietly unwrapped a tuna sandwich in the office or worse yet, on the plane, only to be stared at or worst of all hear, “Who’s eating tuna?”
Alas, the aroma. Might be why so many of us dine on it in private. Which brings me to tuna casserole, a recipe I share below as well.