Fresh Isn’t Always Necessarily Better: Canned Tuna vs. Fresh

by Marcella Hazan on September 29, 2011

Photo by Joseph de Leo

Some dishes are already perfect. One of them is that salad in summer in which you would find very good canned tuna, a raw onion sliced very thin, cooked beans, the whole seasoned with salt, red wine vinegar, olive oil, and coarsely ground black pepper. The only thing you need to pay attention to is the quality of the ingredients. The tuna must be packed in olive oil, probably either in Spain or Italy, and ideally, but not indispensably, it could be the belly portion, ventresca. The beans may be fresh shelled cannellini or cranberry beans, if your market has them, or else very good recently dried beans, soaked overnight, and cooked at a gentle simmer until tender – possibly two hours – in water, olive oil, salt, sage leaves, and several garlic cloves. Use them in the salad while still warm. The salt: from the sea; the vinegar: the straightforward acidification of true red wine; the oil: non-industrial genuine extra-virgin; the onion: not diced,  but sliced very thin, soaked in water an hour so, drained and dried in paper towels; the black peppercorns: tellicherry.

David Tanis, a chef writing the City Kitchen column for the NYT, has taken this immaculate dish and, as chefs are wont to do, has touched it up. Red and yellow bell peppers, red pepper flakes, a smashed garlic clove, basil, mint, or marjoram appear, gratuitously, in the salad. Most unfortunately of all, he replaces the good canned tuna with fresh albacore. Fresh tuna, a bland, almost neutral-tasting meat can’t compare with the irresistible flavor of good Mediterranean tuna packed in olive oil. People who think to improve a niçoise salad by using fresh instead of olive oil-packed tuna make the same mistake.

The City Kitchen is a column intended to showcase simple home cooking, one of the Times’s most commendable ideas. Why is a chef writing it?

Comments on this entry are closed.

Marcella Hazan March 13, 2012 at 4:20 pm

Dear Vicki,
Thank you for your carefully considered response to my critique of David Tanis’s salad with fresh tuna. I am glad that you enjoy cooking from my books (or is it only from one?) and it is gratifying to have such an articulate and dedicated fan. As it happens, I am quite familiar with Tanis’s Heart of the Artichoke, a very pretty tome. One of my best friends, Dorothy Kalins, produced it and gave me an early copy. The conclusion I reached from studying his book and reading his recipes in The Times, which I no longer follow, is that he is anything but simple and humble. The preciousness of his tuna salad is an example. You have astutely observed that in essence he is cooking the tuna in a way that aims to parallel very high quality canned tuna. What is the point? The quality of top-shelf tuna that packing houses in Spain, Portugal, or Sicily put into their tins is distinctly better than the fish an American cook is likely to find in her market. An even more important point is that tuna is intrinsically a dull ingredient that is transformed by long residence in a tin into something delectable that tuna cooked at home cannot match.
I am an incurable skeptic that comes from being Italian as well as from having lived through 20 years of a régime that bombarded us daily with its slogans. No one can accuse me of indifference to freshness. I was beating the drum for it even before, I assume, Tanis was old enough to cook. But “fresh” has become a slogan gathering under its banner a great many people who are persuaded that it is the ultimate criterion by which their cooking is to be judged. I can just imagine how much of that fresh local stuff in the farmer’s market will end up in overspiced cooking and meaningless salads.
What matters about cooking is flavor and sincerity. Freshness is relative. How fresh is fresh? When you buy freshly caught squid in the Rialto market, the fishmonger will urge you to keep it at least 24 hours before you cook it. How freshly caught are you ready to believe the tuna in David’s salad? Should I buy overgrown spongy green beans because they are locally grown and turn away from carefully grown, crisp, nutty green beans from Mexico? Should I have passed up the ravishing costoluto and pachino tomatoes I used to find in the Rialto market because they were shipped from Sicily? If I live in the Napa Valley, should I deprive myself of the better wines produced in Piedmont’s Langhe? For which local substitutes should I exchange my Parmigiano or Pecorino or mozzarella or any of my country’s Alpine cheeses? I have had enough of the code words. Flavor, flavor, flavor, SAPORE is what can make home life satisfying, strong, and irreplaceable

Vicki March 12, 2012 at 3:18 pm

revised comment..

Ms. Hazan, I’m a huge fan of both you and David Tanis. I discovered your first Italian cookbook when I was first married in the 80′s and learned to make my own pasta and cook fabulous Italian food from it. I don’t buy many Italian cookbooks to date because I’ve found that your recipes are unsurpassed or sometimes newer cookbooks seem to be variations of your recipes. I’ll never forget the look on my husband’s and guests’ faces when they ate food prepared from your cookbook. It is still my favorite Italian cookbook after all these years. I have to say though that I am perplexed that you would disagree with David Tanis’s take on fresh tuna vs. fresh. First of all he is a proponent of fresh foods having worked as chef for Chez Panisse for over 25 years (famous for their fresh and local food stance). So I would expect him to try to find a way to serve fresh fish. Also he poaches(slow-cooks) the tuna in olive oil, herbs and spices and says you can store it for up to a week in the refrigerator and then reheat it. In essence it appears he is cooking the tuna in a similar manner to what a canner would do.

I love his cookbooks and preference for simplicity when it comes to food. He doesn’t seem like your typical chef, but is very “low tech” and seemingly humble. Besides, what does it hurt to “revise” foods that have been around for a long time, if it is in the interest of eating fresh and local foods that help our environment. I admire him for attempting to help us get back to cooking in our own kitchens and showing us how to cook fresh and local ingredients instead of using canned foods that come from another continent. Tanis doesn’t seem like the kind of chef that changes a dish simply to do something new or “wow” at a restaurant. I believe there is a method for his madness. Also you question the Times for having a chef write about simple food. He isn’t your typical chef, but came up through the ranks of Chez Panisse — the apex of simplicity in foods. If you read his cookbooks A Platter of Figs and Heart of the Artichoke I believe your view of him will change.

Rosa September 29, 2011 at 8:59 am

That is the kind of salad that I love. Anything containing beans, olive oil, red onions and tuna has all my attention. Your dish looks exquisite!

Cheers,

Rosa

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