Today we are talking about protein. We’re talking about protein because it’s easy to make a big deal about it. It has to be perfect – moist, juicy, delicious. There’s so much stress about getting it right.
What we’re not going to talk about today is how to cook a perfect steak or brine a chicken to perfection. We’re not going to talk about minutes per pound or searing in the juices. We are going to talk about easy protein. Up-for-grabs, low-hanging-fruit, no-muss, no-fuss, pretty much ready-to-go, maybe-even-in-your-kitchen-right-now protein.
If I can find the perfect combination of easy and elegant, I’m stoked. People are impressed, excited, and satisfied Plus, I didn’t have to work too hard to get there. We are talking about canned protein, specifically canned tuna.
Ah, lowly canned tuna. Relegated to the one-note tuna salad. A little mayonnaise, some chopped celery, maybe relish. A picnic side dish. Always the bridesmaid, never the bride. Today we are going to talk about one of the easiest, most elegant ways not only to elevate tuna, but to celebrate it (and impress onlookers to boot).
First, let’s forget about tuna packed in spring water. Why do that to poor, rich, fatty tuna? No one is complaining about olive oil these days. Get yourself tuna packed in olive oil.
Now, elegant. Today, we make Nicoise tuna salad. If you’ve never had it, “salad” doesn’t really do it justice. This is not lettuce and a few chopped veggies. It is a robust, delicious meal. In French cooking, the Nicoise salad is a classic. The vegetables used are pretty standard, but there’s no law against messing around with them. Many people use potatoes, but we won’t. According to some authorities on the subject of Salad Nicoise, they don’t even belong anyway.
There are two ways to do this, mixed and composed. They’re both great.
Very Veggie Nicoise Tuna Salad
Today we are going to talk about one of the easiest, most elegant ways not only to elevate tuna, but to celebrate it (and impress onlookers to boot).
- 1 can tuna packed in olive oil Some people use anchovies – which is OK too, just not both!, drained and broken up
- 1 garlic clove
- 2 large ripe tomatoes cut in quarters
- 1 small cucumber seeded and sliced
- 2 radishes sliced thin
- 1/2 pound haricot vert or green beans raw or blanched* (haricot vert are a French version that are much thinner and shorter than green beans)
- Nicoise olives If you can get pitted olives, they’re much better for a tossed salad
- Lettuce such as Bibb or arugula
- Basil leaves chopped (stack them like cards and roll them up and you can cut beautiful thin ribbons)
- 3 hard-boiled eggs**
First you’re going to take those quartered tomatoes, salt them, and sit them in a colander in the sink. They’ll season up and drain so your salad isn’t wet.
If you have a wooden salad bowl, rub the garlic clove all over the inside. This won’t work so well with a metal bowl. Add the cucumbers, radish slices, haricot vert, olives, and lettuce to the bowl.
Toss the basil with salt and olive oil. This is your dressing. Unlike many other salads, this one isn't traditionally made with vinegar. If you like a vinaigrette, you can add vinegar at this point.
Add the tomatoes to the bowl along with your tuna and toss with your salad dressing.
Plate your salad.
Slice your eggs into wedges, place on top of the salad, and drizzle with dressing.
Doing a composed version of the Nicoise tuna salad is great too. It’s fantastic looking and people love it. It looks (and serves) much more like a platter of food. You’re going to place all the ingredients in rows along the length of your plate or platter. Try to alternate colors as much as you can. Start with a bed of lettuce, but not a lot. This salad is not about the lettuce.
I like to start with the tomatoes along one side. Then olives, haricot vert, and tuna down the middle, with the cucumbers and radishes along the edge. The eggs quarters can get bunched together in a couple of places on the platter. Drizzle with your dressing and even scatter some torn basil leaves. Done!
*To blanch vegetables (great for green thinks like haricot vert and asparagus), heat up water to a rolling boil. Salt the water heavily. You’ll want to have enough water going that when you drop the vegetables in, the water doesn’t stop boiling. If you’re only doing a handful of vegetables, this is pretty easy to do in a twelve-inch saute pan. Leave things like haricot vert and thin asparagus in for 60-90 seconds and drain. If you’re not using right away, drop into ice water. You can keep these in the refrigerator to cook very quickly in a saute pan with olive oil and garlic.
**For hard-boiled eggs: cover eggs in cold water by about an inch. Bring to a boil. When rolling, shut off and cover. Let sit for 10-12 minutes. Drop eggs into ice water and let cool.
Other ingredients that may be traditionally added:
- Anchovies (instead of tuna) – if you use these, place 3 or 4 on top of the eggs.
- Spring (or red) onions – If you use these, slice them thin and add them with the cucumbers and other vegetables.
- Fava beans in place of the green beans
- Red peppers
As a little extra aside, I want to mention another neglected canned fish: the sardine. You love them or hate them. No one “likes” them. Some people say they stink and look nasty. Truth is, they’re great for you, full of omega-3s, very sustainable, and much less susceptible to heavy metal toxicity since they’re at the bottom of the food chain.
Here’s a little trick that I’ve developed that really dresses up the basic canned sardine. First, open the can and drain the oil. You should probably even pat a bit more oil off of the fish, though you do want some to remain. Now, here’s the fun part. Most people eat canned sardines like tuna. Either out of the can, in a sandwich, or in some other “raw” fashion. I like to cook them! It’s fast and you end up with some great little “grilled” sardines in no time that go great with cooked greens, eggs, or veggies.
Heat up a pan (I like to use cast iron because it gets nice and hot). If you need to, add a little fat. But you probably won’t need to. When the oil is smoking, add the fish. You’ll only cook for a minute or so on each side. They’re cooked, so all you want to do is heat them up and get a little char on them. Done! Delicious, fast “grilled” sardines!