Friday, May 9, 2008

These are the Tunas of our Lives

Photo Flickr-Matt Biddulph

Charlie the Tuna is my friend. He's friends with lots of other people too, so I'll have to try to not be possessive of him. Often Charlie is forgotten about (so self-effacing!) but he seems nonetheless to be around in lots of kitchens, ready and willing to be helpful when needed.

I was thinking about Charlie just the other day and wondered how everyone else felt about him. So rather vaguely, I posted a query on Serious Eats and the response was surprising. So very many ways to use tuna were described - there was a veritable treasure-trove of ways to dress up Charlie. Of course some people don't like him too much - I know that my own children do like tuna at home but never in public. The worst thing I could do to them would be to send a tuna sandwich in a packed lunch for school. I did try, once. Their horror after that experience dissuaded me from ever trying that again!

As Mother's Day grows near the tunas made by women who were mother-figures in my own life came to mind. My grandmother (who was not a cook by any stretch of the imagination) put together tuna sandwiches as one of the few things she did "cook". On soft white bread, a mashed pulse of tuna mixed with mayonnaise was flattened along with a swath of butter thickly spread onto one of the bread slices, caressing one side of the tuna like a sliver of fat coolness to bite into. This is the way sandwiches were made in Maine where she lived, when she lived. Butter was a requirement or it simply wasn't a sandwich - no matter whether the filling had mayo in it or not.

My mother didn't much like tuna sandwiches. I can understand why. Instead, one of her specialties was tuna casserole. Made with Campbell's cream of celery soup lined up in its red can and Mueller's elbow macaroni lined up in its blue and white box with the little peek-a-boo cellophane center, the tiny curls of macaroni smiling out through it.

I loved that casserole. In later years I didn't make it very much - it was simply not in the "gourmet" category I liked to putter around in. Once I did make it, when a little boy was visiting. He was six years old and he knew his food. "You're a Great Cook!" he informed me after tasting the dish, which his mother did not make for him at home, I guess. "A Real Gourmet!" I was happy to have him think this, and remembered the taste of my own childhood.

The blue and white box the macaroni came in was useful, too. My dog Wolfie (the most adorable little black Pomeranian one can imagine) stuck his head into the box for some reason then pushed his nose through the broken cellophane peek-a-boo front. It sat on his head like a bizarre crown for a furry little King. I only wish he had worn it every day, but he tired of it after about ten minutes, pawing it off then looking for something else to get into.

My mother-in-law Josephine (a wonderful cook who had learned at her mother's side on a small farm in Italy) had six children to raise. Her way with tuna is remembered with both fondness and fear by her children. She did send tuna sandwiches for lunch, and her children did have to eat them. No discussion here - it was what there was to eat. Actually it was delicious though daunting to have to eat it in front of the eyes of taunting classmates as I hear tell - but I've eaten it and loved it. Flaked inexpensive tuna, grated carrots, finely chopped celery, minced parsley, chopped hard-boiled egg and grated onion with some mayo, salt, pepper and red wine vinegar went into the blend which was then put between slices of white bread. Her trick was to not drain the tuna too much. So what one ended up with was a lovely drippy mess which was rather disgusting at the same time.

How many other ways is Charlie used? I roll a blend of tuna, mayo, capers and lemon juice between roasted red peppers then slice into roll-ups for a cute-looking casual h'ors d'oeuvre. Sometimes I layer tuna blended with mayo, garlic, lemon juice, plenty of ground black pepper and chopped parsley on a baguette with sliced tomato and Provolone and heat the whole thing in the oven for fifteen minutes for a savory, rich hot tuna hero. Divine. Add potato chips on the side and there is no need to imagine heaven - it is there in a very simple, quick bite. A plebian heaven perhaps, but then that's how I like it!

For classicists, there's Vitello Tonnato. For Francophiles there's the famous Pan Bagna (Claudia Roden offers the best recipe, to my mind). Elizabeth David mentions a historic recipe from the 1500's for "Tarantella" in one of her letters to a famous friend. But of course that was before Charlie was canned.

That Charlie. He sure does get around.

Happy Mother's Day to All! (P.S. Save Charlie for another day - he's usually pretty easy to find.)

Saturday, May 3, 2008

To Eat: Shoots and Leaves

Photo Flickr-john w

I’m not on a diet. Nor is anyone else here. But that doesn’t mean that strong personal food preferences, definitely idiosyncratic food preferences, do not reach my ears as chief cook and bottle-washer, oft expressed in the well-known phrase “I don’t like that” when the dinner menu is being discussed.

It's not really even (solely) about pickiness to my mind. It’s about taste and perhaps even about physiology. My daughter would like the world to be made of cheese, with a little bit of chicken on the side please. My son would vastly enjoy a universe built from Japanese food and Doritos. Me? I just want a salad. Preferably one someone else made, just for me.

The only “diet” I’ve ever heard of that caught my imagination was written by MFK Fisher. Her advice was to make a meal of one good thing and lots of it, as much as one might want - then to plan the meals to create a balance of food over the day . . . instead of the more usual way of planning the meals to each be completely balanced as independent entities. The only problem with that diet could be the tendency to make every meal an ice cream meal.

If I were on a diet, things supposedly would be simpler. Day would follow day, so nicely planned out and well-running. The Plan would Rule. No matter what the plan was. But is a diet really the answer? Most everyone I know is on a diet – and nobody is really too happy about it.

It gets even worse when to add insult to injury the diets one decides to bow to then obstinately do not live up to the promises they hold. Not being able to eat things one really likes (whether it be for reasons of health or even merely of being organized in a family of many tastes) can make life seem rather grim. Especially if the diet is for health and as so often happens, the pounds do not magically start rolling off.

My solution has been to try to find a happy middle ground, one without a sense of denial but rather a feeling of hopeful embrace. One solution to resolve my family’s “I don’t like that’s” is to say “To Eat: Shoots and Leaves”. It’s not a perfect solution, granted. But it’s better than eating (a diet), shooting (someone, anyone – maybe whoever invented the diet?), and leaving the scene grimly after meal upon meal of food not to one’s taste.

Embracing the eating of shoots and leaves can be shaped many ways. As a way to find a meal everyone likes, it often works for us. So if the perennial question of what to eat for dinner raises its head in your home, you might also want to respond to it with the answer - "To eat? Shoots and leaves!"

Here is an excellent recipe to try, full of the variety any usual family with fully-developed idiosyncratic tastes requires. It’s an oldie but goodie, quiet but still staunchly standing. You too can be cute as a panda eating shoots and leaves.

Sukiyaki Salad

Buy lots of these good things. Be sure they are fresh and colorful:

Mung Bean Sprouts
Red Bell Peppers

Choose a salad dressing or offer all sorts:
Sesame-Ginger or Tomato Vinaigrette, or whatever odd things the children may like

Prepare your choice of:
Grilled Beef, Chicken, Shrimp, Pork, Lamb or Tofu

Chop and toss, dress and devour. You can make it pretty or just chow down, glad that finally the bickering has ended.