Monday, January 25, 2010

The tuna melt of wistfullness

For my whole life, I have gone through phases with certain foods. I would fixate on one food, and make it and eat it day after day, for months or years. I just really really liked it. When I was little, and I mean, about 7 or 8, I really really liked lamb chops. I could cook them myself and day after day I fried two lamb chops in a pan with butter and salt. It seemed perfectly normal at the time, but now I wonder about the eight year old who kept asking her mother to pick up some more of those lamb chops at the store.
I don't actually think the lamb chop phase lasted that long. Not like the fried eggs, that went on for years. My favorite food, eggs fried in butter with a little salt. Are we sensing a theme? I ate these for years, sometimes on toast, sometimes on an English muffin, for a long period, in a pita pocket with more butter.
There were other obsessions, barely and I mean barely cooked brownies,maybe 10 minutes at 350. Just enough to claim that I was not eating the batter. Or ice cream, several times a day, starting with breakfast. But who doesn't eat ice cream every day. Those foods don't count.
In college, it was tuna melts. And by this point, I was branching out, experimenting. So I tried different things in the tuna salad, cucumbers, olives, carrots, mustard and mayo, maybe lemon juice. I tried different cheeses. I tried toasting and not toasting the bread. I sent my sister a collection of my favorite recipes and I think there were 4 or 5 variations on the tuna melt. And I really really liked tuna melts.
It has been years and while I might occasionally order a tuna melt at a diner, or I used to, until I learned that tuna is not a sustainable fish, I can't remember the last time I made a tuna melt.
So I decided to revisit the tuna melt. Here goes.

The tuna melt is the mainstay of many chrome diners and flights of nostalgia. But too often the sandwich arrives, soggy with grease from myriad sources, made up of lackluster tuna bound into a coagulating smear with insipid mayonnaise all topped with a waxy slab of nondescript "cheese." Sometimes there is a lettuce leaf wilted into a puddle and a pallid tomato sliced added as a gesture of goodwill. I wanted a Tuna melt
worthy of nostalgia, a Tuna melt that could take me home again.
The logical place to start was the tuna. But at this point, we aren't even supposed to eat tuna. There is so much mercury in there that the can will start to levitate if you leave it near a hot stove. And, as I said, Tuna are being fished out of existence, so a real environmental no-no too. I wasn't going to taste test a whole bunch of tuna. I mean we are all adults here, and if at this point in your life you haven't settled on a brand of tuna, well, you have bigger problems than toast or no-toast and should probably be reading someone else's blog.
Same goes for the mayo. It's Hellmans all the way, unless you live out west, where I think it might be Western Family, but do your own research.
I made two types of tuna salad, one with mayo and diced cucumber and one with mayo, mustard, lemon juice, lemon zest and capers. Olives and red onions would have been nice too, so just try to imagine that they were included. At this point, I was really creating two very differentiated salads, the one was vibrant and piquant, debauched almost in it's salty luxuriousness. The other was as familiar and comforting as the shade of an elm tree at noon.
I used whole wheat bread, toasted, and I covered the plain tuna with Camembert and the busy tuna with Havarti. As I recall, herbed Camembert was especially nice on the tuna melt, but I couldn't find any and I'm not sure they even make it any more. As it was, the Camembert I did get, came in that small wooden box and was so unripe I could barely cut it with a freshly sharpened knife. The Havarti was supermarket brand and could have been a mild cheddar or a provolone. But Havarti has a nice melt.
Once I had finalized the Tuna and the sandwiches were assembled, I tackled the issue of The Melt. The cheese has to melt completely and the tuna should be warm, but for the sandwich to maintain it's voluptuous form, the whole thing can't melt. I like a toaster oven at this stage, set to 300. Don't be tempted by the broiler, your cheese will actually crisp up and the tuna will still be chilled and the results are a disturbing mixed metaphor in your mouth.
The two sandwiches were ready and my tasters set to go. Both tasters are me, but I try very hard to be impartial and not to let one good bite turn me against the possibilities offered by the other sandwich.
I preferred the plain. The busy sandwich might do for some, and you know who you are. But I wanted to be taken back to a simpler time when tuna wasn't a death sentence in both the short and long term, when we had home made lunches, and when occasionally, on a hot summer night, a sandwich was all the dinner you needed before you walked across the street to Steve's Ice Cream and got a large vanilla with heath bars and reeses peanut butter cups mixed in.
The bread retained it's resistance, the tuna was warm and non-confrontational, the cucumbers provided a nice watery contrast to all the oil, and the Camembert melted into a an inviting blanket that framed the richness of the mayo while complementing the passivity of the tuna.
Now all I needed was some ice cream.

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