By JULIA REED with The New York Times
When I was growing up, I knew tuna salad exclusively as that excellent mixture of water-packed white tuna, mayonnaise, hard-boiled eggs, onion, celery and sweet pickle that my mother made and that resided pretty much perpetually in our refrigerator. I ate it in the summers standing at the kitchen counter, in sloppy forkfuls straight out of the bowl. During the school year I toted it in my red plaid metal lunchbox, spread on white bread wrapped tightly in Saran Wrap and accompanied by a Baggie of Lay’s potato chips. I was almost 30 before I realized that tuna salad (the mayonnaise-based variety) existed in many other forms.
By then I’d moved to New York and gone to work at Vogue, where, in the pre-laptop days when I actually went to the office every day, I ate lunch at my desk. Imagine my surprise the first time I ordered tuna salad from Mangia, the upscale carryout and cafe on 48th Street that served as our canteen, when it arrived flecked with shredded carrots and dill. It was (and still is) delicious, and since then I have come to realize that Manhattan is a tuna salad lover’s paradise. There is the rather dry version containing nothing but capers at my neighborhood market, Butterfield, and the wet version with red onion at the stupendously wonderful Eli’s. I’ve had the lemon-and-dill tuna salad at Whole Foods, where even a version with cranberries (they must have had a lot left over after Thanksgiving one year) is growing on me. There is the one with light mayonnaise favored by the thin and gorgeous Vogue assistants at the Frank Gehry-designed Conde Nast cafeteria (since my office days, we’ve moved to Times Square), and the salad of canned smoked tuna that is one of no less than three versions offered in the cafeteria of this very newspaper.
Some versions are not so successful, however. I found a particularly revolting-sounding one in the cookbook published by the Assistance League of Omaha (inexplicably on my mother’s bookshelf) containing shredded zucchini, apples, Swiss cheese and chopped pecans. And the other day, in New Orleans, I bought a container with hidden chunks of cheddar, which is, I can now say with certainty, a disgusting idea (as opposed to melted cheddar on top of an open-faced tuna salad sandwich, which is a good idea and which makes it a tuna melt, but I’ll get to that in a minute).
Proof that Southern Junior League cookbooks are superior (and that Southerners like to put gelatin in almost everything) is furnished by the very good congealed tuna salads I have recently found in at least three of them. I can especially recommend the tuna salad mold topped with cucumber mayonnaise from ”Southern Sideboards” (Jackson, Miss.). If I were the kind of person who gave ladies’ luncheons, I would serve it, with homemade melba toast and maybe a fresh fruit salad on the side.
With the cheesy exceptions above, I am open to tuna salad in almost any form, but some people have extremely strong views on the subject. David Rosengarten, in ”It’s All American Food,” says the only tuna salad that really does it for him contains tuna, mayonnaise and occasionally some finely chopped celery, a mixture that is then ”beaten to a pulp,” in the style of old-fashioned New York delis (where, he correctly points out, the tuna salad resembles ”smooth tuna pate”). Also, it must be on soft supermarket white bread and, if possible, made a few hours ahead of time and wrapped in foil, ”so as to simulate the conditions of the sandwich that I carried to school in my lunchbox.”
I am fairly sure I won’t make Rosengarten’s version — he says he wants to eat it every time he returns from a foreign trip — but I understand his nostalgia. (His book, after all, is subtitled ”The Foods We Really Eat, the Dishes We Will Always Love.”) He is also nostalgic about the quality of canned tuna, a product that he says he feels is on a major decline. Among the mass-produced varieties, Rosengarten insists that albacore packed in oil has by far the most flavor and the best texture and further that the oil doesn’t alter the taste of the tuna salad.
He says the brand closest to the canned stuff of his youth is Progresso tuna in olive oil. This will come as a big surprise to water-packed fans everywhere, including my mother. Perhaps they should try tuna packed in its own juices, a relatively new product from boutique canneries that have sprung up on the coast of Northern California and in the Pacific Northwest.
Two brands Rosengarten recommends in his book are the Great American Smokehouse and Seafood Company’s Deluxe Albacore Tuna from Harbor, Ore. (Smokehouse-Salmon.com 800-828-3474) and Dave’s Homestyle Albacore Fillets from Santa Cruz, Calif. (DavesGourmetSeafood.com 206-999-5517) He finds it ”too dry” to eat by itself. ”But when you whip it up with a whole lotta mayo, you get the best-textured, best-tasting tuna salad ever.”
Of course, you can go one better and make tuna salad from fresh tuna. This radical idea never occurred to me until I ate the amazing tuna club sandwich at the Union Square Cafe. This sandwich, on sourdough bread with arugula and crisp thick slices of bacon, is so incredibly good that it is now the only thing I order at the restaurant. The menu is full of many other fabulous offerings, but I can’t be tempted, and no wonder.
The tuna is cooked in a court bouillon until it is well done and flaky, so as to resemble an ultra-version of the stuff from a can. It is then mixed with a sort of ultra-mayonnaise (in the form of lemon-pepper aioli), along with onion, red and yellow peppers and herbs and spices. The result is not fussy and not overly ”gourmet,” and no single flavor overpowers the thing. Before I looked up the recipe in the restaurant’s cookbook, I couldn’t even isolate what made it so good. It simply tastes like the best old-fashioned tuna salad sandwich you’ve ever tasted, and certainly takes the ”I’ll-have-tuna-for-lunch” habit to new, highly satisfying heights.
Another great tuna sandwich is Rosengarten’s tuna melt on rye. He makes the salad with Hellmann’s, red onion, celery and lemon juice, updates the concept by adding thin-sliced avocado between the bread and the salad, and tops the whole thing with good quality grated sharp cheddar before running it under the broiler. If the Union Square’s sandwich is my new favorite lunch, Rosengarten’s melt is my favorite soothing supper. And of course, my mother’s tuna salad remains my favorite all the time.
Union Square Cafe’s Tuna Club Sandwich For the lemon pepper aioli: 2 egg yolks 1 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice 2 teaspoons red wine vinegar 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard 2 teaspoons finely minced garlic 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt 1 1/2 cups olive oil 3/4 teaspoon coarsely ground pepper
For the poached tuna: 1/2 cup coarsely chopped onion 1/3 cup coarsely chopped carrot 1/3 cup sliced celery 1 bay leaf 3 whole black peppercorns 1 pound yellowfin tuna, skinless, cut into 2-inch pieces
For the tuna salad: 1 teaspoon fennel seeds 2 tablespoons diced red bell pepper 2 tablespoons diced yellow bell pepper 1/4 cup minced red onion 1 tablespoon julienned fresh basil leaves 1 teaspoon finely chopped mint 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt Freshly ground black pepper to taste Fresh lemon juice to taste
For the sandwich: 12 slices sourdough, white or whole wheat bread, lightly toasted 2 1/2 cups arugula, trimmed, washed and dried 8 ( 1/4-inch-thick) slices slab bacon, cooked until crisp.
Make aioli: Combine egg yolks, lemon juice, vinegar, mustard, garlic and salt in a food processor. With the machine running, slowly add the olive oil in a constant stream through the feed tube until all the oil is absorbed and the mixture has the consistency of mayonnaise. Add pepper and mix 10 seconds. Transfer to a bowl, cover and refrigerate.
Combine 4 cups water, onion, carrot, celery, bay leaf and peppercorns in a 2-quart saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat. Lower to simmer, cover and cook for 15 minutes. Add the tuna pieces and simmer until they are barely cooked through, about 10 minutes.
Remove the cooked tuna from the cooking liquid to a bowl using a slotted spoon. While the fish is still warm, flake it into small pieces with a fork or your fingers. (The fish firms up as it cools and will not flake as nicely.) Cover loosely and let cool.
Crush the fennel seeds between two sheets of waxed paper; dry fry in a small skillet until fragrant. Place in large bowl; add 1/2 cup aioli, the red and yellow peppers, onion, herbs and salt and set aside.
Mix the flaked tuna into the fennel mixture. Combine well and taste for seasonings, adding salt, pepper and lemon juice as needed. (The tuna salad can be made ahead to this point without the herbs and refrigerated until the next day; stir in the herbs just before using.)
Spread a slice of sourdough bread with the aioli, then with a spoonful of the tuna salad. Top with a few leaves of the arugula and one slice of bacon. Repeat with a second slice of sourdough. Stack one layer on top of another and finish by topping with a third slice of sourdough. Repeat to make three more club sandwiches. Slice each sandwich into halves or thirds and secure each piece with a toothpick.
Yield: 4 servings.
My Mother’s Tuna Salad 1 (12-ounce) can Star-Kist solid white albacore tuna in water 1/2 cup Hellmann’s mayonnaise 4 large ribs celery, peeled and finely chopped 3 hard-boiled eggs, chopped 3 tablespoons chopped sweet pickles, with their juice 1 tablespoon minced onion 1 teaspoon celery salt or more to taste 1 teaspoon McCormick Season-All or more to taste 6 dashes Tabasco Cracked pepper to taste Salt to taste.
Drain the tuna, place it in a bowl and break it up with a fork. Add 1/4 cup of mayonnaise and blend well. Mix in the remaining ingredients, and add the rest of the mayonnaise. Check for celery salt, Season-All, salt and pepper. This is better if it sits at least one hour before serving.