Food writer and cooking instructor Christine Rudalevige is a mother of two who recently navigated a family move from agriculturally rich central Pennsylvania to coastal Maine. Eating locally now means more fish on the dinner table. In this biweekly column, Fish on Fridays, she explores family-friendly ways to enjoy sustainable seafood.
Today, Christine outlines her strong feelings about the proper composition of a tuna melt.
Photo by Linda Xiao
Towards a Better Tuna Melt
I am finding out the hard way that lunchtime in an old, drafty house in coastal Maine in the winter requires hot and hearty food. My solution is a tuna melt. It’s quick, comes from the larder (meaning I don’t have to put on my boots to venture out in the snow!) and sticks to my ribs.
Those facts aside, it’s not always an easy prospect for me as I have many rules when it comes to producing a perfect tuna melt. They can roughly be divided into two categories: tuna acquisition and sandwich assembly.
Picking the right tuna used to be easier: I bought the cheapest. But now I have taste, a culinary conscience, and kids. So after culling the Internet for reliable sources (Seafood Watch, Marine Stewardship Council, FDA, and the Environmental Defense Fund), I’ve set the following guidelines for myself.
Tuna Buying Guidelines
#1: Albacore and skipjack only, please
According to Seafood Watch, albacore pulled from both U.S. and Canadian Pacific waters with troll or pole-and-line gear is your best bet for white tuna. If you prefer light tuna, look for skipjack (also troll or pole-and-line caught), which can come from worldwide sources and still be considered sustainable.
#2: Watch the mercury levels
Tuna are big fish. Bigger fish tend to have higher mercury levels. Mercury is not particularly good for anyone, but it is worse for kids whose brain, heart, kidneys, lungs, and nervous system can be more easily harmed by higher levels of mercury. Skipjack tuna -- because it’s a physically smaller big fish than albacore --typically has lower levels of mercury, if this is a concern.
The Environmental Defense Fund recommends that kids under the age of 6 can eat three 3-ounce portions of skipjack tuna per month. (Only one portion of albacore per month is recommended for this age group.) Older children and adults can safely eat skipjack once a week. Children between the ages of 6 and 12 can eat two 4.5-ounce portions of albacore per month. Adults, including pregnant women, can safely eat it up to three times a month. Fortunately for the tuna consumer, maintaining as-low-as-possible mercury levels in canned tuna has earned many tuna suppliers bragging rights, which are widely touted both in their press releases and on their cans.
#3: Pack it in oil
This is a matter of taste and texture for me. I find the fish tastes better when it’s packed in good oil as opposed to water. I also find oil-packed tuna somewhat creamier. However, I can’t ignore the fact that oil-packed tuna is higher in calories. Additionally, some studies have shown that some of the fish’s beneficial fatty acids can adhere to the oil as it sits in the can and get lost when that oil is drained off before use.
Once I’ve procured the right kind of tuna and mapped out which days of the month I can eat tuna melts myself and serve them to my family, I move on to my assembly rules.
Rules of Tuna Melt Assembly
#1: Keep most of the mayo on the outside
I’ve already copped to swimming with the oil-packed fish. So, instead of putting much mayo in the tuna salad part of my melt (I typically put one teaspoon each of mayo and Dijon mustard), I put a skim coat of it on the outside of my bread and place them both mayo side down in the pan. Mayo has a higher smoke point than butter (giving me a little buffer against my tendency to burn these), and it spreads very easily, so the bread turns more evenly golden brown.
#2: Include a crunchy element
In the tuna salad itself, I always put at least two kinds of crunch elements for a textural boost. I typically include both chopped shallots and cornichons if I’m running with a French version. Chopped apples, fennel, and red onion is another favorite trio (see recipe below). And I am certainly not above dethroning the chicken in a Coronation Chicken Sandwich in favor of tuna so I can add some chopped cashews to the mix.
#3: Mix (but match) your cheeses and bread
I wouldn’t dare put aged English cheddar with a French-inspired tuna salad on focaccia. Nor would I mix a Comte with tuna tarted up with English mustard, like Coleman’s, on seeded rye. My point is, take the time to think about the composition of the sandwich before you slap down any old slice of cheese on any old slice of bread. Actually, I take that back. Never slap down any slice of cheese on a tuna melt. If you grate the cheese, it melts faster and more completely.
Now that I’ve laid down the tuna-melt rules as I see them, you’ll need to excuse me. It’s lunchtime here in Maine.
Tuna Melt with English Cheddar, Apple, and Fennel
Makes two sandwiches
1 (5-ounce) can of tuna (I used albacore, packed in oil)
4 teaspoons mayonnaise, divided
1 teaspoon English mustard (I use Coleman’s)
1/4 cup finely chopped tart green apple
1/4 cup finely chopped fennel
2 tablespoons finely chopped red onion
4 (1/2-inch) slices of whole grain country loaf bread
1/2 cup grated English cheddar (I used Montgomery Cheddar)
Like this post? See Christine's previous topic: Salt Cod, Italian Style.
Christine Rudalevige is a food writer, culinary instructor at Stonewall Kitchen, and mother of two who always fits in three square meals a day -- which occasionally means making up for a skipped breakfast with an ample late-night refrigerator raid.