I have the utmost respect for canned tuna. Trust me, anyone who has spent summer days standing over an enormous pressure canner filled with quart jars of fish, values those tidy little store-bought cans. My years married to an avid deep-sea fisherman were perfumed with hundreds of pounds of fish: albacore, marlin and big-eye tuna.
Canning it, well, produced a smell that could make angels weep and cats congregate.
Those can-fish-at-home days are long past. My appreciation for tuna’s versatility has never waned. I was delighted to find a grayed 2003 issue of Saveur magazine among a throw-out stack. The cover glorified canned tuna. Long ago I had written about the story inside with the headline that read “Why We Love Canned Tuna.”
“I’m here to maintain,” wrote author Colman Andrews, “that canned tuna — almost any kind, but especially albacore packed in olive oil … is one of the great gastronomic pleasures of everyday life.”
Now, thanks to Phil, my buy-it-in-a-can second husband, preserving fish is a thing of my past. His tuna salad is incredible. To a drained 5- or 6-ounce can of tuna, he adds about 3 tablespoons mayonnaise, finely diced red onion and celery, then about 2 teaspoons curry powder. The curry powder (generally a blend of ground cardamom, chilies, cinnamon, cloves coriander, cumin, fennel seed and nutmeg) gives tuna an alluring aromatic edge.
Tuscan Tuna and Bean Salad
If you have a couple of cans of tuna and cannellini beans in your pantry, this simple Tuscan dish can be a quick entree or appetizer. In this dish, quality tuna makes a big difference. Look for tuna that is packed in olive oil. Most supermarkets carry at least one brand. I usually buy the Genova brand yellowfin tuna packed in olive oil.
Yield: 4 main-course servings or 6 appetizer servings
1/3 medium red onion, peeled, chopped
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
2 (15-ounce) cans cannellini beans, rinsed, drained
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
8 to 10 ounces canned tuna (packed in olive oil preferred)
1 tablespoon chopped Italian parsley
Optional garnish: cherry tomatoes
1. Place onion and vinegar in nonreactive bowl for 15 minutes. Drain onion.
2. Place beans in serving bowl. Add onion, olive oil, salt and pepper. Gently toss.
3. Drain tuna. Break into flakes or chunks with fork. Scatter on top of beans. Sprinkle with parsley. If desired, garnish with tomatoes.
Tuna, Rice and Mushroom Casserole
Clipped sometime in the ’70s from a magazine bought at the grocery store check-out, this casserole is an upscale version of tuna concoctions that were popular in the ’50s. I remember the potato-chip topped tuna casseroles consumed in my friends’ homes on Friday nights; they contained pasta and cream of mushroom soup. This rice-filled rendition makes a casual white sauce with cheese from scratch (Mornay Sauce) and is topped with cracker crumbs. Decades ago, I used saltine crackers as a topping. Now I use whatever savory cracker I have on hand, or I substitute coarse breadcrumbs.
Yield: 4 to 5 servings
1/2 pound sliced fresh mushrooms
4 tablespoons butter, divided use
1/2 cup diced celery
1/4 cup chopped onion
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cups milk
1 teaspoon salt
Dash of ground cayenne
1/4 teaspoon dry ground mustard
2 (5-ounce) cans canned tuna, drained
2 cups cooked rice — any variety
Optional: 1/4 cup slivered almonds
1/2 cup shredded cheddar cheese
1/3 cup cracker crumbs
1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a large, deep skillet on medium-high heat. Add mushrooms, celery and onion; cook until onions soften, stirring occasionally, about 6 minutes. Sprinkle with flour; stir to combine. Remove from heat; gradually stir in milk and add seasonings. Cook on medium-high heat; bring to boil. Boil, stirring constantly, until thickened to the consistency of creamed soup, about 2 to 3 minutes (it will thicken more when the cheese is added). Set aside.
2. Drain and flake tuna with a fork. In a large bowl, combine tuna, rice, almonds (if using) and cheese (reserving 2 tablespoons cheese to use on top). Add mushroom mixture and toss. Place in a 2-quart casserole.
3. Melt remaining 2 tablespoons butter and mix with cracker crumbs. Sprinkle crumbs and remaining cheese on top of mixture in the casserole. Bake 30 to 35 minutes, or until piping hot throughout.
Pasta with Tuna and Capers
Any style of smallish pasta can be used in this easy-to-prepare recipe from cookbook author Marion Cunningham. A student of James Beard, Cunningham was the author of the revised version of “The Fanny Farmer Cookbook.” If you like, add some diced carrots to the mix when the broth is added in step #2.
Yield: 4 servings
About 4 quarts water plus 1 tablespoon salt, for cooking pasta
4 1/2 cups (about 1 pound) uncooked small pasta, such as small shells, fusilli, or rotini
3 tablespoons butter
10 to 12 ounces canned tuna, drained and flaked
1 cup chicken broth
1 1/2 tablespoons drained capers
3 tablespoons chopped parsley or basil
Garnish on the side: lemon wedges
1. Put water and salt in large pot on high heat; bring to boil. Add pasta and cook al dente according to package directions. Drain; shake colander to remove excess water.
2. Put butter in medium saucepan over medium heat. Add tuna and break up with a fork into bite-sized pieces. Add broth and simmer 5 minutes. Place pasta in large bowl. Add tuna mixture, capers and parsley. Toss; taste and adjust seasoning as needed. Pass lemon wedges for optional use.
Source: Adapted from “Learning to Cook with Marion Cunningham by Marion Cunningham (Knopf, $29.95)