Foodie Tuesday: You *Can* Tuna Fish

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.Photo: Michelle Tam's Nom Nom Paleo Spicy Tuna Cakes

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.

Foodie Tuesday: Quick Fixes & Peach Treats

I enjoy a good paella, when I can get my hands (and teeth) on it. But it’s not one of those things that in its truer forms can exactly be thrown together in a trice just because I happen to get an urge for it. But, being a fan of fried rice as well, I have been known to think to myself that there might be a hybrid incorporating a bit of both processes that gives me a plate full of paella-like food in a hurry and at least tide me over until the occasion for the real deal arises again. Having so often kept a batch of cooked rice at the ready in our refrigerator, not to mention the gifts of freezer, dried goods and canned foods, I had at least a reasonable chance of putting a faint facsimile of paella on the table at speed.photoPretend Paella

For this highly simplified variant, I made the batch of rice with a blend of broth and dry sherry and a pinch of saffron (should have used a bigger pinch, though). On top of it I put a very simple combination, which while it didn’t replicate paella closely, was reminiscent enough of that grand dish that it served as a reasonable place-holder until I can once more indulge in a beautiful slow-simmered paella. This time, I chose to saute a half cup of diced celeriac (celery root) and a cup of roughly chopped carrots in bacon fat, add a generous cup of sliced chorizo, heat that through, and add about a dozen or more large peeled, cleaned uncooked shrimp, adding water or broth or sherry as needed to keep everything plump and moist while cooking through and caramelizing a little. I didn’t season this further because the bacon fat and well-seasoned chorizo gave everything plenty of flavor. At the last moment, I stirred in a good three cups or so of the cooked rice and a cup of frozen peas, blending it all together just until the peas were heated through. One pot meal, with a touch of nostalgia, and as ever, infinite possible variations depending upon what’s in the kitchen waiting for me.

Having eaten this light and refreshing meal in warm weather, we didn’t need much except some cool drinks (icy water and a bit of cold sangria and chilled Sauvignon Blanc worked well for us three on the particular occasion), but we weren’t so over-filled that we weren’t of a mind to have dessert as well. A one-dish meal, after all, has a reasonable chance of not making diners feel coma-proximal. The afternoon trip to the grocery store, the one wherein I ascertained that there was no giant inspiration that steered me away from my thoughts of insta-paella, did inspire me with the produce section’s wafting scents of fresh fruit, and the image of underripe peaches made me salivate for the late-season ones not yet on hand.digital artworkSo I shamelessly fell back on preserved peaches for dessert shaping. The strawberries in the store had come into seasonal ripeness, but had clearly already been snapped up by earlier shoppers, so although the slightly over-aged ones remaining smelled sweet enough, the flies perched on them were a deterrent as well. Those, then, were substituted for by some freeze-dried strawberries. A ragtag pantry is not a problem in nearly the way that a lack of pantry would be, after all.

Coconut Soft Custard with Peach-Berry Coulis

While we sat eating our Pretend Paella, I had a cup of freeze-dried strawberry slices macerating in the liquid from a pint of canned-in-juice peach slices in the fridge. Also in the refrigerator waiting was a soft custard: one can of coconut milk, three eggs, two teaspoons of vanilla paste, and a half cup each of dark rum and dark maple syrup, and a pinch of salt, then whipped up and heated until slightly thickened, cooling and setting up in the fridge to thicken more fully. After supper, dessert finalizing was simply a matter of pureeing the strawberries in their liquid plus a cup of the peach slices into a smooth coulis, spooning the puree and custard in layers into dessert dishes, and topping them with a sprinkle of toasted sweetened coconut. In theory, this will serve five or six people, but we three are not theoretical exemplars by a long shot, so I’ll just say the dessert was as completely gone after our attacks as the rice dish had been earlier. Proper portions? You be the judge.photo

Foodie Tuesday: Come Away with Me

Travel eating can be a horror, of course, since the challenges of being in unfamiliar territory, changing time zones (and therefore, often, the times when we’re hungry or not), having to figure out the differences in price based on a travel budget and possibly foreign currencies and the simple odds of finding great food in a new or different place can all conspire to put us at risk of eating badly, if at all. I can think of a few classic examples in my own history, to be sure. A trip to a certain little (long gone, God willing) Inn that wanted ever so dearly to be thought quaint and Elizabethan and folkloric springs instantly to mind: a speedy glimpse into the dining room should have warned of danger ahead, had either my sister or I bothered to note that the decor included a plate rail circling the room and bearing an ominously vast collection of cartoonish miniature boxes of cold cereal. What followed, since we failed to notice this flagrant danger signal before we’d ordered and waited quite awhile, was remarkable in its weirdness and memorably awful tasting, a meal in which every single ingredient smacked noticeably of the tin from whence it sprang and the pièce de résistance was a salad thus composed: one wet leaf of iceberg lettuce cupping a hard, slightly greenish canned peach half that in turn cradled one whole pitted black olive. If ever a thing eyed me ominously, it was that thing.

But more often than not, lest you think me incapable of finding out the true culinary delights peculiar to any place I visit, I love travel in large (no pun intended) part because I do find and relish such specialties of places-not-my-home.

In Texas, besides the fine variety of regional treats influenced by the mix of whatever native and immigrant populations rule therein, there is almost always some great Mexican and/or Tex-Mex food to be had, not to mention the whole range of beefy, meaty and BBQ-smoky goodness that reigns in the hearts and stomachs of the locals. So you know full well that when my spousal-person and I get to do any wandering in our current state of dwelling, we tend to hunt for those joints where the area’s avid eaters congregate to eat such good and glorious things.photoA trip to the Boston Early Music Festival is reason to rejoice by virtue all of the fantastic playing and singing we hear there. High art and musical culture are always a thrill. But it’s also an outstanding excuse to indulge in Boston‘s superlative food culture. So, given the chance, you can bet I’ll dash to one of the nearest provisioners of provender to order up a beatific lobster roll as soon as I can manage it. If it is repeated numerous times and also happens to be followed by a number of equally fine regional treats, say, a dainty dish of Boston baked beans swimming in molasses-sticky sauce or some spectacular Italian food at the north end of town, why then, I’m all the happier.photoDriving through Oregon wine country is a sure way to enjoy some spectacular scenery, its vineyards interspersed with small organic farms and fruit and hazelnut orchards, but do you think there’s any chance I would settle for merely viewing such glories and not dining on them too? Think again! Would I go visiting in northern Italy and not fill up on ethereal handmade pasta with wild mushrooms? Never! Cross an inch of Hungarian soil without seeking out a good dose or ten of paprikás or gulyás? Perish the thought! This musing is motivated in part, of course, by the opportunity and intent to spend a bit of this summer engaged in this beloved sport of eating-while-traveling. (Or, admittedly, traveling-while-eating.) But if it also serves to move you to further such adventures, rest assured I will be cheering you on all the way. And if I can find you and join you at the table, I most assuredly will.photo