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Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Sneaky (and tasty) No-Mayo Tuna Salad

They say necessity is the mother of invention–but if so, boredom and procrastination are at least its stepparents.

Tuna salad is one of the things I whip up most often, and am most proud of my renditions of. It and scrambled eggs may be the two greatest "what you make of them" dishes ever; while essentially zero effort will produce bland but more-or-less edible versions, a touch of technique and creativity (plus a well-stocked pantry) can turn them into something delicious and expressive with barely any work, and let you feel like you've actually cooked something that still gets to your mouth within 15 minutes.

The "what you make of it" factor also applies to how healthy the sandwich is. Plain tuna mixed with a big glop of mayo and neon-green sweet pickle relish on white sandwich bread certainly won't do you any favors (and that's before you add the American Cheese and fry the thing in butter). On the other hand, mix in some chopped bell pepper and artichoke hearts, add some cucumber and tomato slices and good fresh salad greens, and you could at least do a lot worse.

Still, there's one big issue healthfulness-wise that there seems to be just no getting around: mayonnaise.  The relative merits of the gloopy white stuff are one of Annie's and my few culinary disagreements. She's quite fond of it, whereas while I don't hate it–it's a useful means to an end where a creamy sauce is called for–I find it adds fat without any flavor, or at least any pleasant one. I don't use it as a condiment, and I prefer my potato salads and coleslaws done with vinegar instead. In tuna salad though, it seems usually necessary to get the texture right. I've tried to fight it; I've made tuna salads based on everything from tahini to pesto to greek yogurt, and some have worked out pretty well, but the texture is never quite right, and the flavors either limit you to specific applications or simply overpower everything else. Time and again, I've gone back to the mayo, and found myself dumping large quantities of every other flavorant I have on hand into my tuna just to overcome mayo's power to dull the things it's included in.

Today, though, a happy accident revealed an alternative. Annie had cooked up some red lentils for her dinner the night before (I was in Worcester for a poetry show), and I was going to have them for lunch today. We also had some very nice wheat bread from NE's best bakery chain When Pigs Fly on hand though, and I wanted something that would go with that, so on a whim (and to get away briefly from working at home) I tossed the leftover lentils into the food processor along with some Dijon mustard, garlic powder, balsamic vinegar, and a splash of fish sauce and pureed them into a spread. I put a bit on some slices of bread with some arugula, stuck the rest in a tupperware and into the fridge, and thought no more about it until tonight, when I decided tuna salad was in order, and saw the container as I was searching for things to flavor it with. What had been a thin sauce straight out of the food processor had thickened nicely, and to my pleasant surprise, stirring it into the tuna made it unctuous and creamy just like mayonnaise--but with a pleasantly nutty flavor and subtle bite that contributed without overpowering. A few other supporting condiments, some chopped olive and bell pepper, sliced cucumber, and a light slathering of the English standby Branston Pickle brought everything together into a top-notch sandwich--no mayo required.

Obviously, I'm not suggesting you boil a pot of lentils every time you want a tuna sandwich; I certainly  don't have that kind of patience. Maybe, though, this will induce you to make some extra next time–or, indeed, to try experimenting with other legumes that might do the same job. I can confidently say this, at least: even if I weren't trying to improve my diet, if I had this puree on hand, I'd never reach for the mayo when making tuna salad again.

Lentil Puree Tuna Salad
Serves 2 generously

1 cup cooked lentils. Do them how you like--Annie tossed hers with olive oil, cumin, hot sauce, and a splash of white vermouth, then boiled them as normal. You want these relatively soft and a little on the wet side.
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard.
2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar (adjust to taste)
Generous sprinkling of fish sauce or Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon hot sauce (unless lentils are hot already)
1 large pinch garlic powder (or 1 clove very finely minced garlic)
Generous sprinkling of cumin
Salt and pepper

Add all ingredients to food processor and run at full speed ~30 seconds, until mixture is completely smooth. Move to sealed container and refrigerate for at least one hour, up to overnight.

Tuna Salad (here especially, feel free to adjust the seasonings to what you already have):
1 can tuna (I like Tonino, and happened to have the oil packed, but water packed should work)
Lentil puree
1/2 red bell pepper, finely chopped
1/4 cup green olives (I like Castelvetranos for this), minced
1-2 teaspoons red wine vinegar
A few shakes of Worcestershire sauce (opt)
Large pinch smoked paprika
Dash cumin
Dash ras-el-hanout
Sriracha to taste
Salt and pepper.

Combine tuna, olives, and bell pepper in medium mixing bowl. Add the puree, a tablespoon or two at a time, stirring after each, until you reach your desired consistency. Add the vinegar, Worcestershire, and seasonings, and add more puree if necessary to re-adjust consistency. Serve immediately or refrigerate until ready.

Sandwich (and this is just one possible version, of course):
1 small cucumber, peeled and thinly sliced
Country-style wheat bread, sliced medium-thick
2 teaspoons Branston Pickle Relish (1 for each sandwich)
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard (1/2 for each sandwich)
1/2 cup baby arugula (1/4 for each sandwich
Tuna salad

Spread one side of the sandwich with Branston Pickle and the other side with mustard. Lay out cucumber slices on one side, top with tuna, then arugula (crunch it in your hand to make it stay on the sandwich more readily), then the other slice of bread.

The mysterious puree. 

The finished sandwich. My lack of photography skill is evident, but it tasted terrific.

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