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?