The great tuna salad debate started well before I ever really loved the stuff. I was part of the anti-mayo population who would grimace at the sight of the quivery white spread, so a creamy fish salad was never really my thing.
But somewhere along the line my taste buds grew up, and when college friends from Chicago would swear by their local favorite, I'd find myself fiercely defending the tuna salad from Gold's deli (no relation) in my hometown of Westport, Conn. My favorite was looser and flakier than their pureed version; you could see full, bright celery leaves; theirs was more of a schmear to spread on bagels. We could go 10 rounds over a stupid scoop of fish.
Tuna salad preferences and loyalties can rival those over regional barbecue. A little crunch is the only characteristic most agree on; beyond that, you'll find people in favor of sweet or salty - pickle relish, anyone? - olive oil- or mayo-based, smooth or flaky.
Let's face it: The daily tuna fish sandwiches on Wonder Bread - a lunch staple of so many generations past - have gone the way of the cassette tape. Due to high mercury levels, tuna is more of an occasional indulgence, to be consumed with a measure of caution. It's still a good source of omega-3 fatty acids and high-quality protein.
A vehicle for many natural partners - from capers and olives to apples and lemon - tuna salad can host an array of ethnic flavors and styles.
The Nicoise tuna salad riffs on the classic French composed salad, while Cesar restaurant in the East Bay features an oil-based, Spanish-style salad that gets a tart and spicy kick from lemons and jalapeno chile peppers.
As we tested our way through tuna salad recipes - all made from canned fish - our individual preferences caused a few heated battles as well.
The tuna from Cesar, for example, became the runaway favorite of some members of the our staff yet didn't fit others' perception of tuna salad, given the hit of hot red pepper and jalapeno, and what can only be described as an olive oil bath (we cut it down in the recipe here). The tapas restaurant serves the Spicy Tuna Salad in a bocadillo, a Spanish sandwich, with sliced eggs and arugula, and published the recipe in the Cesar cookbook in 2003.
Also olive-oil based, but a little less intense, is the Nicoise salad, which eliminates the more customary potatoes in place of crunchy radishes. It disappeared pretty quickly, although some tasters forked through to separate the egg yolks from the whites, noting the fact that eggs, in general, were a curious addition to tuna salad.
On the other end of the spectrum, the "ladies who lunch" at Neiman Marcus cafe will recognize the pecan tuna salad, laced with the sweet nuts, celery, and water chestnuts for crunch. Food and beverage vice president Kevin Garvin says the recipe was created years ago and appeared in the Neiman Marcus Cookbook in 2003.
The water chestnuts and pecans set this apart from the others, though these breakthrough flavors are relatively mild. Garvin says that being a Texas company, it was only natural to go with the pecans, and adds that the cafe always uses real mayonnaise.
"Over the years, people have challenged me to make it light, " says Garvin, but he's never messed with it. "Customers come to Neiman's because they want to indulge. I'll leave the mayo in - if they want to order it on a Tuesday, it's up to them."
Never ones to balk at an indulgence, we forged ahead with the recipe as written, but thought it was even a bit too mayo-heavy for our tastes. We adapted the recipe to use a little less, but feel free to add it back in if that's your thing.
In fact, the beauty of these recipes is that they're all adjustable to personal taste. Play with the amounts of seasoning, mayonnaise, oil or add-ins. Depending on how you like it, these can be stretched to feed a crowd - if you put it on bread or atop a hearty salad, for example, you're bound to get a few more servings.
Nicoise Tuna Salad
Makes 6 servings or enough for 8 sandwiches
For the dressing:
3 tablespoons Champagne vinegar
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
Kosher salt, to taste
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil Ground black pepper, to taste
For the salad:
1/3 pound green beans, ends trimmed
1 cup small-diced radishes (about 3/4 bunch)
3/4 cup thin-sliced pitted kalamata olives
1 cup halved grape tomatoes
3 (5-ounce) cans olive oil-packed white tuna, drained
3 hard-boiled eggs, cut in half through the middle, each half quartered
Kosher salt and ground black pepper, to taste
1. To make the dressing, whisk the vinegar and Dijon mustard together with a generous pinch of salt until smooth. Slowly whisk in the olive oil in a steady stream until the dressing emulsifies; season to taste with pepper. Set aside.
2. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the green beans and blanch for 1-2 minutes, until crisp-tender. Shock beans in an ice-water bath to stop the cooking; drain and dry well. Cut into 1/2-inch pieces.
3. In a large bowl, toss together the green beans, radishes, olives and tomatoes. Flake the drained tuna with a fork, and mix gently into the vegetables. Pour the reserved dressing over the salad and toss well to combine. Gently place the eggs into the bowl, and fold carefully to distribute evenly. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
4. Serve immediately, or refrigerate up to 2 days before serving.
Note: Boil the eggs and blanch the green beans ahead of time (up to 1 day in advance) to make preparation easier. Serve the salad on bread or atop a bed of lettuce drizzled with olive oil and lemon juice for a spring lunch.
Per serving: 338 calories, 23 grams protein, 5 grams carbohydrate, 24 grams fat, 128 milligrams cholesterol, 587 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.
César's Spicy Tuna Salad
Makes 4 servings or enough for 6 sandwiches
2 cans (6 ounces each) high-quality tuna in oil, preferably Spanish
About 20 green olives, pitted and finely chopped, to taste
2 green onions, white and green parts, chopped
About 2/3 cup salt-packed capers, rinsed and coarsely chopped, to taste
1/3 cup finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 jalapeno chile, minced
3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons dried red chile flakes
Juice of 2 to 3 lemons
1. Open the tuna and discard the top layer of oil. Do not rinse the tuna. Place the tuna in a large bowl; add the olives, green onions, capers, parsley, jalapeno, olive oil, chile flakes, and lemon juice, adjusted to your liking. Fold together gently. Do not break apart the tuna too much; there should be a nice mix of small and larger pieces.
Note: Serve this alone or on a sandwich garnished with sliced hard-boiled eggs and arugula.
Per serving: 659 calories, 23 grams protein, 4 grams carbohydrates, 61 grams fat, 23 milligrams cholesterol, 1,331 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.
Neiman Marcus Tuna Pecan Salad
Makes 6 servings or enough for 8 sandwiches
3 cans (6 ounces each) chunk white albacore tuna in spring water, drained
1/2 cup finely diced celery
1/2 cup sliced (1/4-inch) water chestnuts, drained
3/4 to 1 cup mayonnaise
3/4 cup coarsely chopped pecan pieces, toasted
Salt and pepper, to taste
Squeeze of fresh lemon juice
1. In a large bowl, lightly break up the tuna with a fork. Add the celery, water chestnuts, and mayonnaise, and stir well to combine. Fold in the pecan pieces, and season to taste with salt, pepper, and a squirt of lemon juice, if needed.
Note: Because the nuts can get soggy, this is best served right away over a bed of greens or in sandwiches.
Per serving: 416 calories, 22 grams protein, 5 grams carbohydrate, 35 grams fat, 50 milligrams cholesterol, 491 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.