Last week, Joe Dizney noted in Small, Good Things that tinned fish is in the zeitgeist. No kidding. Shortly after reading his column, I was texting with a friend when she mentioned she’d just eaten a can of trout from Denmark. “Cost 12 dollars,” she wrote.
Of all the people I know, she is probably the one who eats and cooks with the greatest sense of natural, easy glamour. Her refrigerator and pantry are never stuffed (I will spare you a description of mine), but everything in them is delicious and extraordinary.
Which means that if she casually mentions that she has just consumed pricey preserved fish from Denmark, I immediately wonder: Do I have enough chic canned seafood in my pantry?
Which is silly. Having grown up with a Finnish mother and a half-Scottish father, I was eating pickled herring and smoked kippers at an age when most American toddlers were gnawing on teething rusks. Smoked mussels on toast have been a part of my lunch repertoire since before my tween years (again, thanks, Mom).
For much of my young life, I was ashamed of my fishy proclivities. Lately, however, the proverbial tides have changed. Sardines on toast are a big, fat trend in foodie circles, and smoked squid and mussels apparently turn up on hors d’oeuvres platters at the most exclusive cocktail parties. The happy result has been a proliferation in stores of high-quality tinned and jarred seafood, including many options that are sustainably caught and processed (yay). The unhappy result is an often-absurd uptick in prices.
For example, you can, if so inclined, purchase a 270-gram tin of tuna packed in oil for $25.95. Granted, that tuna was caught in “the abundant cold waters” of the Cantabrian Sea. But still, the Cantabrian Sea is part of the Atlantic Ocean, and “abundant cold water” is kind of what it means to be an ocean, no?
Anyway, putting fish in a can is first and foremost a practical move. Seafood is among the most perishable foods we eat. Regions that have depended on it for human sustenance and/or the health of their economies — places like Scandinavia, Japan, Portugal and Sicily — long ago figured out how to preserve the day’s catch so that it could be stored indefinitely or exported long distances. In order to become shelf-stable, seafood has to be subjected to harsh conditions — vinegar, salt, sunlight, smoke, high-heat cooking — which means that rich, oily options like herring, sardines and mussels produce the best results. The same is true for rich, fatty tuna. Remember tuna? The ho-hum canned fish you grew up with?
A few hours after that text exchange with my friend, an article appeared in my inbox from Eater, the foodie website. It’s titled, “Stop Trying to Convince Me Tinned Fish is the Height of Luxury.”
What I will do, however, is remind you that everyone needs a few good canned-tuna recipes in their repertoire. Here’s one I’ve loved for more than a decade. It uses olive oil and lemon juice in place of mayonnaise, and fennel instead of celery. I still often make it when I have a hankering for something chic and glamorous, like fish in a can.
Tuna Salad with Green Olives, Capers and Fennel
Makes enough for 2 sandwiches
- 1 6-ounce can water- or oil-packed tuna (see note, below)
- ½ fennel bulb
- 1 tablespoon minced red onion
- Juice and zest of 1 lemon (about 2½ tablespoons juice), divided
- 3 tablespoons pitted green olives
- 2 teaspoons capers, drained
- 1½ tablespoons good quality olive oil (see note, below)
- ¼ cup loosely packed parsley leaves, roughly chopped
- Salt and pepper to taste
Note: If you use tuna packed in water, increase the olive oil to 2½ tablespoons.
- 2 pieces ciabatta or other crusty bread plus a little mayonnaise (optional)
1. Drain the tuna and set aside.
2. Core the fennel. Using a mandoline, slice the fennel paper thin, then roughly chop, leaving a few slices intact. In a small bowl, combine the fennel and the minced onion with 1 tablespoon lemon juice and a little salt and pepper. Mix to combine, then set aside to marinate lightly.
3. Roughly chop the olives. In a medium bowl, combine the chopped olives, lemon zest, capers and olive oil, and mix thoroughly. Fold in the flaked tuna and parsley, plus the reserved fennel mixture. Taste and add lemon juice, salt and pepper as needed.
4. Toast the ciabatta and spread with a little mayonnaise, if using. Divide the tuna salad between the ciabatta and serve.