This is not much of a recipe, as it goes, but I make a pretty mean Jewish-deli-style tuna salad. It’s easy, and yet it’s not.
There are many ways to make canned tuna fish into an enjoyable salad. My mother-in-law does hers up with relish and, we suspect, a dollop of sugar. Fairway makes a “healthy” tuna salad with soy-based mayonnaise and so rich in carrots that it skews the flavor profile, and in a good way. Mine is a bit more traditional, and not far off from what you’d get at, say, the Carnegie Deli on Seventh Avenue. (Although I’d have to make a lot more of it to make an equivalent sandwich.)
- One or more cans of solid white albacore tuna in water (I buy Bumble Bee)
- A jar of mayonnaise (I buy Hellmann’s, and—shhh—I get the low fat kind; see below)
- A stalk of celery
Open tuna cans, drain water, dump contents into a steel or glass mixing bowl. I used to squeeze and squeeze the water but it really doesn’t matter as the final product is so moist.
Mash up the tuna a good bit. I use a dinner fork for this and keep it pretty informal, although getting to small pieces is important. My mom, from whom I learned the basics of this recipe, used to dice the hell out of her tuna fish with a chopping knife, a 1970s, single-handed version of the thing they use at Chop’t to chop up salads nowadays, which served to eradicate most traces of fishiness (and therefore made it one of her son’s two go-to lunches, despite the fact that her son abhorred most fish until well into adulthood) but also took out some of the texture and corresponding flavor. I no longer opt not to go that far, although you certainly can. The Carnegie’s tuna looked knife-chopped to me last time I had it. Still, you want to break up the tuna well, because the interlacing of the ingredients—that squishiness you can actually hear—is what makes for great tuna salad.
Next, add the mayo. There are two tricks that come in handy here. The important one, and probably the whole point of this essay, is to use way more mayonnaise than you would ever suspect you’d find palatable. All those tiny pieces of tuna you created need to adhere to one another, and a generous apportionment of vinegar-oil-and-egg blend will be the defining characteristic of a great tuna salad. I start with one heaping tablespoon of mayo for every five or six ounces of tuna, and I wind up using twice as much, or more. Add a spoonful, mix it in with the fork, check its color and consistency, and add another blob. Not just add to taste, trust me, you’re going to want to keep going; I tend to stop too soon every time. You can actually listen for that squish in your fork as the tipping point into proper proportion. Did you stop adding mayo out of skepticism? Fear? Seriously, add more. The ideal amount home turns out to be about half a tablespoon more than you think.
The other mayonnaise trick, as mentioned in the ingredient list, is that unless you’re cooking up two batches side by side with different ingredients, reduced- and low-fat mayo tastes just as good as regular. (At least, Hellmann’s does.) So you can spare yourself some cholesterol to help your heart, and your conscience.
When the tuna and mayo are all set, it’s time for the celery. Celery is nice because it adds a great textural counterpoint to the sponginess of the tuna, and the flavor balance is excellent. Celery portioning is discretionary: I typically put in a quarter-stalk per can of tuna, diced into small but not minuscule pieces, but a bit more or less won’t impact things too much. Other ingredients can also be added at this time, like Fairway’s carrots, but I stick with just the celery. Mix in thoroughly.
Finally, chill the tuna salad, then serve. I am happiest with ice-cold tuna in sandwich form, with a half-sour pickle and potato chips and a cream soda as the ideal accompaniment. Good tuna salad is equally satisfying on almost any bread, from white to multi-grain to a baguette, though a Jewish-deli tuna salad preparation probably deserves Jewish bread: rye, pumpernickel, challah or a bagel. Eppes essen.