As the old joke goes, “you can tune a piano, but you can’t tuna fish!” But not only is it silly as humor goes, it’s wrong, in my estimation. Tuna, whether raw or cooked or tinned, is a mild-flavored fish, and as such can be harmonious with a wide range of ingredients and preparations and dishes. As with most fish, the freshness and quality of the tuna are the determining characteristics in the success of any preparation you choose. I’ve eaten tuna that was mediocre, and tuna that was spectacularly delicious, and plenty that fell at some mark in between, happily toward the better end of the spectrum for the most part.
Given the price of genuine Tsukiji-grade sashimi tuna, I leave the handling and preparation of it to sushi masters who feed me. I’m not even confident enough in my skills to make a reliable seared tuna loin, my favorite way to eat fresh or flash-frozen tuna, so that’s left to expert chefs as well. I hope to change that eventually, but in the meantime, it leaves me dependent on the kind that ends its swimming with a ride in a can to my pantry. And that is not a bad thing. Once I discovered that tuna can be cooked in a tin with nothing more than itself, or perhaps a touch of salt, I turned my back on all of the iffy tinned stuff packed in water, oil, or any other adulterating liquid that affects its texture, flavor, and flexibility as an ingredient in any recipe. There are a handful of companies I’ve found that offer really lovely preserved tuna fillets in cans, fish so unmolested that it tastes delicious straight out of the tins. It’s worlds better for tuna salad, and that’s handy since old-fashioned tuna salad is a lifelong favorite of both my partner’s and mine, whether on a sandwich or on crackers, salad greens, or rice.
It’s grand in other all-American basic recipes like tuna noodle casseroles or tuna melts. And because its texture remains flaky and dense rather than the unpleasantly mushy stuff that comes out of the average tuna tin, this sort of tuna makes a wonderful ingredient for a wider variety of edible goodies than anyone averse to the old-school, mass-produced kind of tinned tuna would ever guess.
We took inspiration from the marvelous Michelle Tam at Nom Nom Paleo last week and used her recipe—mostly unaltered, much to the amazement of my spouse, who’s so accustomed to my habitual recipe fiddling—for Spicy Tuna Cakes, and the tuna I used was perfect for them. For the first meal of these, I topped mine with melted cheddar and made side dishes of sautéed green beans and mushrooms with bacon crumbles, and a Waldorf sort of salad of apples and celery with a light lemony mayonnaise dressing that had hearty helpings of both pickled and candied ginger to jazz it up. [Please excuse the after-dark quickie photo.] Maybe this week I’ll go pan-Asian and start dinner with hot and sour soup and then serve the tuna cakes with Thai peanut sauce.
One of the particular benefits of this tuna cake recipe is that it’s not only easy to fix but also makes enough for several meals for the two of us, so I’ll likely make up a double batch (two muffin tins’ worth) and freeze even more of them next time. In addition, it’s one that I can tell will easily adapt to a number of kindly variations—look out, Mr. Sparkly!—and I’m sure I’ll try some of those as well, over time.