Crazy for Canned
As specialty tuna surfaces, that old salad will never be the same
In my family's version, the tuna was "stretched" with hard-boiled eggs, and the mayonnaise was replaced with something called "Salad Dressing" (a generic form of what most people know as Miracle Whip). The cloying sweetness of the dish was accentuated with a dollop of pickle relish. The whole mess was spread over soft, white bread and topped with a leaf of iceberg lettuce. Ambrosia.
In those days, tuna came packed in oil. It was dark and toothsome. Then, somewhere along the line, "better" white albacore tuna came into vogue, and spring water replaced the oil.
When this new century rolled around, it seemed that suddenly, canned tuna was everywhere at least in the food press. We heard murmurs from that siren of The New York Times food page, Amanda Hesser, and from Vogue food editor Jeffrey Steingarten, both praising Quimet i Quimet, a Barcelona tapas bar notable for serving exclusively food that comes from a can. Then, Russ Parsons of the L.A. Times swooned over tuna from the can in another story about tapas. It was only a matter of time before someone would wax poetic about the tuna-salad sandwich.
In October, Colman Andrews, editor in chief of Saveur magazine, opened the can with a cover story on tuna. "You can have your charred rare ahi," he wrote, "we prefer our Thunnus packed in olive oil." Featured recipe: Tuna Salad Sandwiches, of course.
Interestingly, turning up on everyone's list, there beside the Spanish and Italian brands, is tuna harvested right here in the Pacific Northwest. When David Rosengarten of the Food Network extolled the virtues of canned tuna on NBC's Today Show last summer, he summed up with this remark: "The very surest category for tuna salad today is American Northwest tuna packed in its own juices." Who knew?
"Another exciting way to go is reddish tuna from Europe packed in olive oil," he added, "as long as it's firm."
But what about that stuff from the Northwest? According to Michael Morrissey of the Oregon State University Seafood Lab in Astoria, our tuna not only tastes better, it's better for you. For one thing, it's troll caught after being fattened in these northern feeding grounds, so it's rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, just like wild salmon. For another, it's albacore, which is smaller than the other species of the genus Thunnus (yellowfin and bluefin) and their cousins (skipjack and bonita). A general rule, Morrissey wrote in a report on the issue, is "the larger the fish the higher the levels of mercury," so it may follow that the smaller albacore is lower in mercury. Preliminary tests have borne this out.
Joe Malley, who fishes out of Seattle on his boat the St. Jude and markets his own troll-caught albacore, sent 120 random samples of tuna belly to a food-quality lab in Portland, where the chemists puréed the samples and tested for the presence of mercury in parts per million. It seems that any mercury present in those 120 samples was too small for the equipment to detect.
So where do you get the stuff? "Fishing Vessel St. Jude" brand tuna can be found at Whole Foods, Larry's Markets and some Thriftway stores, as well as on Malley's Web site: www.tunatuna.com. University Seafood and Poultry stocks several brands of troll-caught albacore, and quite a number of Northwest brands can be found at www.albatuna.com/Sources/Canned.htm, a sort of troll-caught-albacore clearing house.
You can find some seductive canned Spanish tunas in Seattle at The Spanish Table, 1427 Western Ave. (www.tablespan.com). And you can find an eye-opener of a tuna salad at Café Campagne, where chef Daisley Gordon serves one modeled after a dish he tried in Paris last year.
"My wife ordered this tuna salad for lunch in a little cafe," says Gordon, "and both of us were just blown away. How could canned tuna taste so good?"
To recapture the moment, Gordon tried several brands of Spanish tuna. He settled on one from Whole Foods called Arroyobe Bonita. (It should be noted that while "bonita" is actually not a Thunnus, the Spanish call albacore "bonita del norte" and label it bonita.)
Greg Atkinson is a Bainbridge Island writer and culinary consultant. Barry Wong is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.
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