I had an interesting experience with a high-end "gourmet" food product last week that I thought might be worth sharing on my blog. It involved imported olive oil-packed canned tuna. Most of the time I don't use canned tuna for anything that would require such a special product. I keep a nice brand of canned solid white albacore (packed in water) on hand for making the occasional tuna salad sandwich. For years I have also used this kind of tuna to make Salade Niçoise. Although many chefs now make their Salade Niçoise with fresh tuna, classically it is made with canned, olive oil-packed Tuna. When I make mine, I simply "doctor" my drained water-packed tuna with olive oil and salt. I have always felt that my Salade Niçoise was very good. But since I am teaching Salade Niçoise in an upcoming class, I thought I should at least try one of the oil-packed imports.
When I went to Dean & Deluca to purchase some there was a large display with numerous brands. I hadn't realized that there would be such a large selection. I ended up purchasing the one recommended by the very helpful guy behind the counter. I have since found out that this was a highly regarded brand, so he obviously steered me in the right direction.
All of the tunas that they had were in roughly the same price category—something in the range of what I would call shockingly expensive. The one I bought was $15 for a 7 oz. jar that contained about 6 oz. of Tuna. This works out to be $45 per pound for canned tuna! I could purchase fresh sushi grade tuna and poach it in olive oil myself and it would be less expensive—even accounting for the added cost of the olive oil. I thought this tuna must be some pretty special stuff for that kind of a price. Something on a level with foie gras, for example. Better in fact, since a quick check over at D'artagnan reveals that I could have purchased a similar sized tin of paté de foie gras with black truffles for less than I paid for the jar of tuna.
When I opened the jar, it was with some anticipation that I tasted it. But I have to say that I was really unimpressed. It was good...but not that good. I decided to enlist another taste tester to do a blind tasting of the expensive import side by side with my reliable grocery store albacore (doctored with olive oil and salt). My taste tester surprised me and said they thought the expensive import had "a bit more flavor". (And this is true, it did.) I then said "Do you think it had EIGHT TIMES more flavor?" Well, of course, they didn't.
I'm not quite sure why I share this, except that I think it is instructive. I would never tell people not to purchase imported olive oil-packed tuna. It was, after all, very good. But what I would say, is that you shouldn't be seduced into purchasing something because it is the latest or hippest gourmet food. Neither should you break the bank to slavishly replicate a classic dish if a lesser expensive ingredient can be substituted for one of the original ingredients and doing so doesn't compromise the integrity of the dish. Always buy what you like—particularly if it is a good product that is readily available to you. I would hazard a guess that this is the reason olive oil packed canned tuna was used in the original Salade Niçoise. It was a quality, readily available food...and it happened to taste very nice in a green salad with tomatoes, green beans, hard cooked eggs and olives.
Since after my taste testing experiment I had half a can of tuna left (expensive tuna that I wasn't about to waste), I needed to find a way to use it up. I could probably have looked around for a recipe for a tuna mousse or something, but there wasn't that much tuna left...and I was really more interested in coming up with something simple for dinner. Midway through the day I remembered a salad that my mother used to make on really hot summer days (something we have had a lot of lately). It was a cold pasta salad with tuna, peas and herbs. It was all bound together with a cool mayonnaise-sour cream based dressing. I hadn't had it in years. I thought I would try an updated version of this old favorite to use up my expensive tuna. It turned out to be a delicious trip down memory lane. But with fresh peas, fresh dill and crème fraiche (instead of sour cream), it was even better than I remembered it. It was a perfect dinner for a blisteringly hot day. It is not "gourmet", but it was very good. And it will be every bit as good if you make it with plain old solid white albacore tuna (perhaps doctored with some olive oil and salt...).
Old Fashioned Pasta Salad with Tuna, Peas & Fresh Herbs
1/2 c. crème fraiche (can use sour cream)
1/4 to 1/3 c. mayonnaise
juice of half a small lemon
Salt & pepper to taste
1 1/2 c. peas, blanched in boiling salted water and refreshed in cold water
6 oz. shell pasta, cooked until al dente, refreshed under cold running water and tossed with a little olive oil, salt & pepper
7 oz. can of tuna, drained and flaked (if using water packed, toss with a little olive oil, salt & pepper, if you like)
2 hard cooked eggs, diced
1 med stalk of celery, split lengthwise and thinly sliced (about 1/2 c.)
3 or 4 medium radishes, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced crosswise (about 1/3 c.)
half of a small red onion, finely diced and rinsed (about 1/3 c.)
1 T. chopped fresh dill
1 to 2 T. chopped Italian flat leaf parsley
Combine the crème fraiche, mayonnaise, lemon juice and salt & pepper in a small bowl. Whisk to blend. Taste and correct the seasoning. Set aside.
In a large bowl, combine the remaining ingredients. Fold in the dressing. Chill. Before serving, taste and correct the seasoning with lemon, salt and pepper. If the salad seems dry, add more mayonnaise. Serves 4 to 6