Tuna through the years

What is it about southerners and canned tuna? Growing up I ate a tuna fish salad sandwich at least once a week, that or pimento cheese or peanut butter and banana. I don’t remember ever contemplating the taste of tuna itself. Tuna wasn’t a singular object, it was a collection of ingredients enrobed in mayonnaise. In fact the point of all of those ingredients was to disguise the actual fishy taste of the tuna. My mom used the chunk light stuff (packed in water) and mixed it with mayo, chopped boiled egg, diced sweet pickles and diced apple. The apple and sweet pickles were both chopped so fine you couldn’t really recognize them by sight–just taste. It was a sweet tuna salad, and the most dominant ingredient was the apple, which my mom said made the tuna taste like chicken.

A couple of years back I bought what has become one of my favorite cookbooks, The Mensch Chef, by Mitchell Davis. Davis teaches you how to make all of the classic Ashkenazi Jewish staples, from stuffed cabbage to potato latkes to brisket to tuna fish salad. His tuna recipe has become my favorite of the mayonnaise based varities. He insists you use albacore tuna–not the chunk light stuff–and he suggests you use tuna packed in oil. To that he adds mayonnaise, chopped celery, the juice of a lemon, a chopped dill pickle, 1/4 of a chopped onion, a chopped hard-boiled egg, fresh parsley and salt and pepper. The lemon really makes a difference, brightening the salad in a sunny sort of way.

It’s been so hot in New York these past few days that long hours at the stove are out of the question. And so I’ve been eating a lot of cold composed salads, including salade Nicoise. Gourmet Garage sells this divine tuna packed in olive oil–Tonnino–that is the best I’ve ever had. The tuna comes in thick filets. It is firm and flavorful and yummy all on its own–you could eat it straight out of the jar. (And sometimes I do.) It’s too good to drown in mayo, which is why it’s so good for a salad Nicoise, where all you do is lay it over the lettuce and pour a lemony dressing over it. But today for lunch I was really craving a sandwich, so I thought I might attempt a sort of Nicoise/tuna salad hybrid.

Here’s what I did: Chopped a few black olives–which acted as the salt for the whole thing–then chopped a tablespoon of parsley. Put that in a bowl with the wonderful tuna, gave it a few squeezes of lemon, and mixed it with a fork. Next I poured a little bit of olive oil onto two slices of French bread, which I toasted. Meanwhile I tossed some arugula leaves with lemon juice and a tiny bit of salt, and took a couple of slices of roasted red pepper out of the fridge. (I roast them stovetop and store them in olive oil.) Not it was just a matter of assembly. I am on open face sandwich kind of a gal, and this was no exception. On each piece of toasted baguette I piled on the tuna mixed with olives and parsley, then put a few slices of roasted red pepper on top of that. I finished with a topping of lemon dressed arugula.

It was a pretty great sandwich. A native of Nice, I believe, would have really dug it. Though I doubt I would have liked it as a kid. I mean, c’mon! Where’s the apple? Where’s the Duke’s?

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