When you think about it, tinned tuna is a miracle. The spoilage window for fresh oily fish is measured in days or even hours, but I bought a tin of tuna last week with a best before date of Christmas 2027. I wish I could guarantee I will still be good to go in seven years.
The original selling point of tinned tuna was its blandness – a less fishy alternative to sardines, it was marketed as tasting like chicken – which makes it a versatile, if not immediately inspiring ingredient. You can pay a little or a lot for tuna – anywhere from 59p to £10 a tin – and it will probably be in the form of steaks or flakes, packed in oil or brine; it may well come in a jar instead of a tin. Most recipes specify what type to use, but I wouldn’t sweat it. Tinned tuna is a culinary compromise, so just use what you have, unless it is the really expensive sort and you are saving it for a special occasion. Something is bound to come up in the next seven years.
Officially, you are not meant to put tuna in salade niçoise, although this is often said about most of this classic salad’s familiar ingredients – you could make a whole salade niçoise out of stuff that is supposedly verboten. But, with 17 recipes to find, we are hardly in a position to be doctrinaire, so here is a version – from Claudia Roden, no less – that contains tuna and still makes bold claims to authenticity, originating as it does from a restaurant in Nice.
Tinned tuna plays a feature role in many other salads. Rachel Roddy’s white beans with tuna and onion contains most of the recipe in its name – nothing else is required but a dressing of oil and vinegar and a handful of chopped parsley. Rosie Birkett’s variation uses spring onions and adds radishes and raw fennel.
Angela Hartnett omits the onion and replaces the white beans with a mix of fresh green, yellow and runner beans. Alison Roman – who may or may not be pleased with the sobriquet “the New York Nigella” – presents her spiced black lentil salad with tuna, radish and purple potatoes as a sort of “fridge clean-out meal”. She must have a big fridge.
Apparently, more than half of the tinned tuna consumed in the US is made into sandwiches. The tuna sandwich blighted many an American childhood, including mine, while the tuna melt – a sort of toasted cheese version – is a small but definite improvement. It is normally her milkshake that brings all the boys to the yard, but Kelis also has a lot to say about the proper way to make a tuna melt – you can find her recipe here.
It is also possible to make passable fishcakes with tinned tuna, although this may stretch your definition of fishcake. This version, for example, is baked rather than fried. It sounds a bit like putting six portions of potato salad in the oven, just to see what will happen. Whatever happens, it serves six.
Tinned tuna is the main ingredient of tonnato sauce, an Italian fixture commonly served over thinly sliced veal. As with any quintessential staple, there are about a million ways to make tonnato; it is difficult to find two identical recipes for corroboration, but if you chuck all the fundamental ingredients (tuna, anchovies, garlic, oil, egg yolk and lemon juice or vinegar) into a food processor and blend until you have something with the consistency of mayonnaise, you won’t have gone far off the right track.
Rachel Roddy’s tonnato also has parsley and mustard in it. The one Delia Smith uses for vitello tonnato contains neither, but does include capers. Yotam Ottolenghi uses tonnato to accompany grilled cauliflower steaks; his contains pickled green peppercorns.
Sam Harris’s tuna involtini requires a basic tonnato that omits even garlic, rolled up inside roasted red peppers and served as an antipasto or as party food. These empanadillas employ the same combination – tuna and red pepper – sealed inside dough and baked like little Spanish pasties.
Being the kind of thing you happen to have when you don’t have much of anything else, tuna naturally features in a lot of quick and slightly desperate pasta dishes. Spaghetti in a basic sauce made from garlic, olive oil and tomatoes, with a tin of tuna stirred in near the end of cooking, along with some chopped parsley, forms one of those meals I fall back on several times a month, out of a failure of imagination, will or both. Angela Hartnett’s penne with tuna and cherry tomatoes is simpler still, a perfect dish for children to eat and learn to make.
Tuna is a solid, almost structural component of bakes, retaining a certain firmness while everything else in the dish turns to a pleasing mulch. Nigel Slater’s baked tomatoes with tuna and borlotti is the purest from of this – just open a few tins, combine and bake together until the dish takes on a deceptively homemade air. Ottolenghi’s baked orzo puttanesca is technically a pasta dish, but it is a similar store-cupboard-emptying exercise, as long as your cupboard runs to orzo, capers and preserved lemons.
Ottolenghi also does a lovely harissa-spiced tuna picnic cake, which is not really a cake at all, but a sort of solid-state salad – baked and then chilled overnight – that travels well and can be sliced.
Finally, from the kitchen of Allegra McEvedy, comes a deeply intriguing dish of Scandinavian provenance: the Norwegian tuna pasta bake. The ingredients are like a colour chart for posh house paint, incorporating as they do almost every possible shade of off-white: milk, butter, cream cheese, onion, pasta, flour, breadcrumbs and, of course, tuna. This is not just lockdown food; it is overwintering-at-an-Arctic-research-station food. Enjoy – and see you in the spring.