For the ideal tuna salad, keep it simple. Photograph: Alamy
Sounds simple enough, but every detail is controversial. Tinned tuna or fresh? Rocket or cos? French beans or no? Which olives, what dressing and what to drink with it?
Hair splitters! Finicky folk! The unbearably anally retentive! Please assemble in the e-meeting room that is theguardian.com. For How To Eat – the blog series charged with identifying the ideal version of Britain’s favourite dishes – is back and, this month, we’re tackling that controversial classic, tuna salad. It is the star of a million at-desk lunches (so long as no one nicks yours from the fridge, that is), and the perfect quick fall-back meal on a hot summer’s evening, but it comes in 1,001 varieties and all but one of them is completely and utterly wrong. So, without further ado, lettuce commence. As ever, keep it cool BTL: no flakiness, no raw language, no overly salty exchanges.
Way back in the mists of time (1998), when we were all obsessed with the perceived sexiness and health-giving properties of the Mediterranean diet, there might have been an excuse for using seared, thinly sliced tuna steak in a salad. We were young, we were foolish and this novelty wasn’t (from memory) £30-a-kilo. But, in 2015, to do so would be a flagrant waste of that precious rosy flesh. Its delicate flavour is best savoured as a rare treat, rather than leaving it to jostle for attention in a salad of competing flavours.
Instead, tinned tuna will do the job - which is not to say that all tinned tuna is created equal. There is a self-evident hierarchy of quality, both for the tuna itself (flaked useless, chunks marginally better, steaks best), and the liquid it is preserved in. Tuna in spring water or brine is dry, mealy, abominable stuff. Sunflower oil is better, but for maximum flavour it has to be in olive oil.
I trust it goes without saying that you should never a) use smoked tuna, b) mix tuna with mayo if it is going in a salad, or c) resort to any of the infused or pre-mixed tunas that (in a damning indictment of late capitalism) proliferate in our supermarkets. A salad is no place – if, indeed, one exists – to be experimenting with tuna dressed with tomato and herbs or infused with soy and ginger.
Let he who has never bought a supermarket bagged salad cast the first stone, but you cannot dispute that these sad sacks are a rip-off, and that they are a particular waste of money when it comes to tuna salad. All you want and need, here, is some clean, sweet base crunch. Cos or baby gem lettuce are the way to go; shredded or chopped in chunky hunks that are neither too small nor so big that you need to unhinge your jaw to eat them. Save your swankier salad leaves – peppery watercress, bitter radicchio, that homegrown crop of woody, horrible rocket that never seems to end – for salads where they will make a genuinely effective contribution.
The salad ingredients
Were this a band, you now have your star lead singer (the tuna) and your tight rhythm section (the leaves) in place. It is time to add some mid-range colour: a lead guitarist, a keyboard player, backing singers, perhaps a flautist for that unexpected prog-rock interlude. Now, some of you will read the ingredients listed below and think: “Hang on, this is just a bastardised salad niçoise”, but what of it? The not-quite-salad-niçoise is – to extend this rock group metaphor way past its breaking point – like a band’s classic first album. Later, they will dabble in jazz-funk and start naming their tracks with runic symbols. Which will be interesting. In a way. But that first album, Not Quite Salad Niçoise, is the one you will always come back to.
Why? Because, primarily, a great tuna salad is a fine balancing act between sharp, salty, fishy flavours and those fresher, spritzier vegetable components – which function almost as an ongoing palate cleanser, as you eat. And, while there is no need to stick faithfully to the original, the salad niçoise remains our most reliable outline guide as regards how to achieve that balance. Moreover, it determines the additional ingredients you might use in an eminently sensible way.
The full list of acceptable/unacceptable ingredients is as follows:
YES: slices of waxy/new potatoes (boiled); anchovies (chopped for thorough distribution, never whole); halved, not overly ripe baby plum tomatoes; cucumber, deseeded and sliced; a small amount of finely chopped sweet red or spring onion; capers; jarred, brined green olives (save those fresh, buttery nocellera to enjoy on their own); chopped or sliced boiled egg; it’s creaminess is a fantastic contrast. A handful of finely chopped leafy, green herbs (parsley, chives, chervil, basil even) is also welcome, but not essential.
NO: French/green beans (vile cold, and invariably boiled to a mushy consistency); raw white onion; carrot and beetroot (whose flavours are jarring in this context); croutons (this is not a caesar salad); any chilli or feta stuffed olives (it pains me that this needs pointing out); dull black and/or shrunken purple kalamata-like olives; sliced bell pepper (whose presence in any salad should rightly prompt a lengthy outburst of vociferous “industrial” language).
Also, on the egg-front, please note that no one wants a tepid-to-warm, still runny poached egg on their tuna salad. There is something deeply unappetising about rogue “hot” ingredients in cold salads and/or salad leaves covered in stringy trails of translucent albumen. Moreover, that running yolk turns any tuna present into gluey, indigestible lumps. You may think a soft poached egg on a tuna salad is sophisticated, clever even. It isn’t.
Step away from the pesto (it makes everything taste of, well, pesto), and dispense with that sharp-elbowed white wine vinegar. All you need here is olive oil, salt, pepper, lemon juice and dijon mustard, all smoothly emulsified in such a way that the character of each ingredient is clear, but elegantly reconciled. Whisk, taste, go.
Assembly and plating
Serving a salad in a deep cereal bowl makes it difficult to eat. Serving it on a plate always looks wrong. Serving it on slate, meanwhile, is a clear sign that chef needs to stop browsing inspirational tableware catalogues and actually think, practically, about how people eat.
Instead, line a shallow, wide-rimmed bowl with leaves, and separately (you want those leaves to retain their distinct flavour and crunch) dress and mix the other ingredients, minus the tuna. That, similarly, should be broken into substantive chunks on top and left as a separate complementary dimension of flavour, not doused in vinaigrette.
Lunch or tea – also known, in some part of the UK, as dinner. NB. If anyone in your circle every refers to tuna salad as a “light mid-week supper” you can – after your toes have uncurled from that sudden, excruciating cramp – happily kill them in any gruesome manner you think fitting. There is not a court in the land that would convict you.
Crisply bitter pale ales; dry, flinty white wines; water.