Friday, September 07, 2007

Canned tuna

Well, only one of my two readers reacted to my canned soup column, but on the strength of that, here's my second one--on canned tuna.
My son-in-law, Brandon, is a picky eater, which in his case translates to almost no vegetables—salad and minestrone are okay—plus a few other strong dislikes, one of which is tuna. When I mentioned I might write a column on the uses of canned tuna, he sent a list of uses for it: bait, guest repellent, convenient source of mercury, salad spoiler, etc. Brandon is joined by a few people (not the majority, I don’t think) who hate tuna.
Then there are those of us for whom it is a staple. I could eat tuna five days a week, but now they tell us it’s bad for health because it contains high levels of mercury. The trouble is it’s hard to find a firm opinion about how much tuna is recommended per week. It’s generally agreed that pregnant women and nursing mothers should not eat it, but after that the issue is murky. Fish companies claim that the FDA-approved levels are ten times below the level which causes health problems, probably a position taken as a precaution. But another website claims that a person of my weight (150 lbs.) can safely eat ¾ of a 7.5 oz. can of albacore or white tuna a week, or about 2 ¼ cans of light tuna. Albacore, while considered the delicacy, is generally more toxic because the fish are older and larger and therefore have absorbed more mercury. My trouble is that I really like albacore.
A website on tuna describes the trauma of shopping for a tin. Enough choices confront you to confound even the coolest of minds. Do you want albacore or light (and then there’s bonita, which I seem to remember from childhood is a cheaper fish that tastes sort of the same only more so). Do you want chunk or solid or flaked? Water packed, oil packed, or—for some recipes—packed in olive oil? The writer bemoaned that all cans of tuna look alike, so you’re likely to get home with something you don’t want. I did that once, and came home with flaked light tuna. I fed it to the cat, but it’s much worse for cats than people—it causes kidney dysfunction, which older male cats like mine are especially prone to. That's probably why Brandon wants to feed it to the cat--he doesn't like cats much better than tuna.
Okay, so you’re going to eat tuna, in the small 3.0 oz. can, three times a week—that seems a safe and cautious amount. What do you do with it? Tuna salad is ubiquitous, and when I’m eating out it’s often my choice of sandwich for lunch. I assume everyone makes it pretty much the same way—tuna, some form of chopped onion, lemon, and mayonnaise to bind. Some people add pickle relish. I have a friend who adds chopped sweet pickles, and it’s delicious. Some people add a little mustard, and that’s good. You just have to avoid having too much binding agent and ending up with tuna soup. Sometimes I put a dollop of cottage cheese in it. But what’s above and beyond tuna salad? Here are a couple of my favorites.
Tuna Florentine
2 Tbsp. butter, divided use
1 small onion, minced
2 10-oz. pkg. frozen chopped spinach
2 tsp. salt, divided use
½ tsp. ground nutmeg
2 7-oz. cans tuna, packed in oil
3 Tbsp. flour
A pinch of mace
½ tsp. white pepper
Spinach cooking liquid plus enough milk to make 1-1/2 cups
1 cup grated Swiss cheese
2 Tbsp. Parmesan
2 Tbsp. white wine
1-1/2 cups soft bread crumbs
1 Tbsp. grated Parmesan
2 Tbsp. melted butter
Melt 1 Tbsp. butter; add onion and sauté until brown. Separately, cook two pkgs. frozen spinach in less water than the directions call for, breaking the frozen spinach up with a wooden spoon. When tender, drain thoroughly, reserving the liquid (spinach should be very dry). Add butter and onion so spinach. Season with 1 tsp. salt and nutmeg. Simmer briefly to blend flavors.
Add milk to spinach liquid to make 1-1/2 cups.
Drain tuna, reserving 2 Tbsp. oil; flake.
Put 2 Tbsp. tuna oil and remaining Tbsp. butter in saucepan and melt butter. Blend in flour, mace, remaining tsp. salt, and pepper. Add spinach liquid/milk mixture and stir over heat until thick and smooth. Remove from heat and add cheeses and wine. Heat until smooth again, and fold in tuna.
Layer spinach in bottom of shallow casserole. Top with tuna mixture. Mix topping ingredients together and spread over tuna layer.
Bake, uncovered, at 350 until bubbly and lightly browned (35-40 minutes). A lot of work but well worth it.

Southwestern tuna
7-1/2 oz. can albacore tuna
juice of one lime (a good juicy one)
2 Tbsp. chopped cilantro
1 Tbsp. capers
¼ c. chopped celery
¼ c. chopped red onion
Pinch of cumin
Mayonnaise to bind
1 can chopped chilies (use your own judgment about canned chilies or a chopped jalapeño—I like the canned)
I use this as a dip, served either with crackers or tortilla chips (the good strong kind).
There are also lots of things to do with tuna for dinner for one. Maybe that’s another column.

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