Love and Hate on the Plate
We all have our secret food pleasures, the loves we are ashamed to tell anyone else (except possibly other food discussion board members). And even the most broad-minded omnivores have something we consider so loathsome, we'd sooner fade away to nothingness than fortify ourselves with it -- even though others have no qualms about scarfing down the stuff. There are those like Jeffrey Steingarten, who believe it is their duty to teach themselves to tolerate the terrible tucker. While I'm not quite ready to beatify him as "St. Jeffrey," I do venerate him for the sacrifices he has made in the search for enlightenment. When looking about for cookbooks to review, I thought I might follow the spirit of his teaching.
Confession is supposedly good for the soul, so here goes: One of my lifelong loves is canned tuna, and an equally long-term dislike is macaroni salad. (When faced with a salad that combines the two, I end up with a severe case of indecision -- if not one of indigestion.) Of course, nowadays no one calls it "macaroni," except maybe a few Italian-American grandmothers. It's all pasta, if you please, whatever its national origin: a linguistic pretense as unbearably snobbish as the belief that the only tuna fit for consumption is lightly seared sushi-grade ahi.
I doubt I could have grown to womanhood without canned tuna I also doubt my early life would not have been better had I been spared the trauma of being made to eat macaroni salad. In the interests of scientific investigation, then, I chose to look at -- and test recipes from -- one book that glorifies my secret passion, and another that would have me reverse my long-considered thinking.
Both Joie Warner's Take a Tin of Tuna and Pasta Salad: 50 Favorite Recipes by Barbara Lauterbach are published by Chronicle Books both are handsome paperbacks, with readable type and large close-up color photographs of nearly all the finished dishes. Both are easy to use, with deep flaps front and back to hold one's place, and bindings that stay open. The directions are clearly written, the ingredients in their proper order. Tuna has one slight layout advantage: running heads on all pages tell you which chapter you're in. Other than that, the two books employ similar designs. Opening chapters on "The Basics" gently teach the reader about the characteristics of their respective focus ingredients Tuna's also discusses oft-used mix-ins, while Pasta Salads has a separate chapter on making basic sauces (vinaigrette and mayonnaise) and some prep tasks. And in spite of a list of trademarked foods at the front of Tuna and its occasional insistence on the use of Oscar Mayer bacon, neither book falls to the level of Semi-Homemade: both stress the use of fresh, seasonal ingredients, or top-quality canned or frozen only if need be. For the record, almost all the tuna recipes call for "solid light tuna, packed in olive oil," sometimes drained, sometimes not.
I had an enlarged set of tasters available: in addition to my husband (known somewhat inaccurately as He Who Only Eats), a half-dozen or so of my high-school classmates were coming over soon. They share with me traits of age (upper-middle), gender (female), a New York City upbringing, and extreme overeducation. All eat, and all cook for themselves and their families. Some keep kosher. Other than the usual concerns about fat, salt, and so on, and one no-mercury regime, they could all try many if not all of the dishes.
So: how are the recipes? There were some I could not bring myself to try because . . . well, as much as I love canned tuna, I share Marcella Hazan's dislike of seafood and cheese, so none of the variations on Tuna Melts for me, even if they do call for better cheese than American. While the Tuna-Anchovy Puffs looked adorable, and I just happened to have a package of puff pastry sheets in my freezer (don't we all?), alas, I did not have the requisite 3- to 4-inch fish-shaped pastry or cookie cutter. And the tuna version of Crab Rangoon -- tuna, cream cheese, ginger, chiles, and water chestnuts wrapped in wonton wrappers, deep fried, and served with duck sauce -- required last-minute cooking that would have taken me away from my guests. As for the pasta salads, I did not want to be unseasonal, so Orecchiete with Roasted Butternut Squash (and fresh cranberries!) with Ginger-Honey Dressing was obviously out. And concern for my guests' religious practices kept me from making Radiatore Beef Salad with Horseradish Dressing or Pepperoni Pizza Salad (all the good pizza toppings mixed with ditalini and a dressing including garlic, anchovy paste, and one of the rare uses of dried oregano).
So the tuna dishes were Tuna Tapenade, the filling for the Classic Tuna Salad Sandwich, and (Robb Walsh, avert your eyes!) Tex-Mex Tuna Dip. On the pasta side, I served Spicy Soba Sesame Salad, a classic Elbow Macaroni Salad with Mayonnaise, and CH's Orzo Salad with Spinach, Olives and Feta. Unbeknownst to the assembled guests, one of those dishes was a ringer, purchased from a local store.
No one hated anything. The Elbow Macaroni Salad was possibly the least favorite -- too much mayo for one, too much onion for another, good "for what it is" to all. We all agreed that the Classic Tuna Salad was not: while the chopped Granny Smith apple was a good addition, it denied the label "classic." The Spicy Soba Salad -- with snow peas, red bell pepper, scallions, and toasted sesame seeds, in a dressing of rice wine vinegar, red pepper flakes, tamari, and chili, sesame, and peanut oils -- looked lovely, but was not particularly spicy. Tapenade was generally enjoyed, even though mine came out looking nothing like the photo after all, with tuna, garlic, anchovies, capers, Kalamata olives, mayonnaise, and a bit of cayenne, how far could it be from the "classic" recipes? I initially had my doubts about the Orzo etc., since its combination of orzo, fresh spinach, celery, chopped Kalamatas, red onion, and feta was to be mixed and dressed ahead of time, but I found that the light soaking with dressing brought everything together nicely.
The surprise hit was the Tex-Mex Tuna Dip: a mixture of tuna (in this rare case, chunk light tuna was acceptable), chopped scallion, chopped pickled jalapenos, mayo, chopped cilantro, and salt and pepper. One of my friends said, "My son who loves spicy food but not fish would probably like it (a BIG compliment)." Even considering that the cilantro -- a major component -- was in its low season, the flavor was well-balanced and quite exciting. A great reason to indulge in tortilla chips!
Are these books worth getting? For those who eschew all packaged and preserved food, and who prefer to have "better" ingredients in their larders, probably not. But for those of us who sometimes have to throw together a meal from a seemingly odd assortment of ingredients along with basic staples, and feel the need for a bit of guidance, both offer some interesting variations on time-worn themes.
Could I still eat canned tuna? Every day, you bet. And have I abandoned my aversion to macaroni salad? Definitely not the under seasoned version my mother used to make. As for any others . . . well, the jury is still out.