Hot tuna casserole was in the meal rotation of my 1970s youth. If you’re old enough to remember, you too can still visualize the tall box of Tuna Helper on the supermarket shelf, the contents of which included a can of fish, a foil bag of noodles and the ready-made-just-add-water cheese sauce. Stir it all together and voilà, dinner was ready in minutes, a feat of kitchen engineering that my mom and her stay-at-home peers adored. If we were lucky, she might have crumbled potato chips or French-fried onion rings on top (or maybe that’s wishful reminiscing), but mostly I remember a “tunny fish” perfume that I can never unsmell.
Like many other fish-eating Americans, I keep a stash of canned tuna in the pantry. The convenience of tuna in a tin is irrefutable, a fix of protein at the ready with the pop of a pull-tab can. I’m not one to eat tuna right out of the can, spread it onto crackers or stir it into pasta salad. I keep it handy expressly for making tuna melts.
Unlike the tuna casserole from my mother’s kitchen, a tuna melt is inviting. All the choices are yours, from the bread to the tuna salad fixins. The cloak of melted cheese (also cook’s choice) is designed to be cozy and warm (not scald) the roof of your mouth, and everything is seasoned as you wish.
But under the big tent of tuna melt possibilities, some key principles are worth keeping in mind, ensuring the success of your next tuna melt adventure. They are, in no particular order:
- Always toast the bread.
- Don’t be skimpy on the cheese (it is called a “melt” for a reason).
- Thoroughly mash the tuna, almost into a paste;
- Always add a “glue” to moisten the tuna and help keep it from falling apart.
- Texture is cook’s choice, but adding even the smallest amount of chopped scallions or celery adds welcome contrast.
To wit, my idea of a perfect tuna melt contains no mayo whatsoever. It’s an open face beauty on rye, moistened with Dijon, studded with scallions and drizzled with sesame oil, all under a dome of sharp cheddar. Those of you in the Mayonnaise Forever Club may fail to understand, and that’s OK; you do you.
The recipe that follows is more about technique and designed as a template to create your own tuna melt path.
Tuna melt: A template open to interpretation
Makes 1 to 2 servings.
Amounts may be doubled or tripled.
- 1 5-ounce can albacore tuna
- A few pinches of ground black pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon ground spices of choice: curry powder; coriander; dill or celery seed (optional)
- 2 heaping teaspoons adhesive: Your choice of mayonnaise, Dijon mustard or plain yogurt; or 1/4 mashed avocado
- 1/4 cup textured bits: Any combination of finely chopped scallions, celery, chives, tarragon, dill; pickle relish, diced cucumber pickles, drained capers
- 1/4 cup grated cheese of choice: cheddar, pepper jack, Gruyere are all good choices; 2 slices of cooper sharp or sharp provolone are equally delicious
- 1 or 2 slices of bread of choice: rye, pumpernickel, whole wheat or white are all good choices. (Avoid bread with lots of holes.)
- Other flavor zipper uppers for consideration: 1 teaspoon prepared horseradish; 1 teaspoon tahini stirred with 1 teaspoon yogurt; 1/4 cup pesto; a few glugs of hot sauce; diced preserved lemons; finely chopped olives; pickled chile peppers; a small handful of rehydrated sundried tomatoes. Crunchy companions for serving: potato chips; sliced radishes or carrots; dill cucumber spear
1. Scoop tuna out of can and into a mixing bowl. Season with black pepper and spices (if using), lightly mashing with a fork.
2. Add adhesive of choice and mash the tuna more assertively until smooth. Stir in the textured bits until well mixed. Taste and reseason as needed.
3. Toast bread.
4. Spoon tuna salad onto toast, spreading evenly. For open-face melts, use about 1/3 cup; for two-slice book end-style sandwiches, use about 1/2 cup. Note: Even for two-slice sandwiches, I recommend arranging tuna salad on one piece of toast only.
5. Set the oven or toaster oven to the broiler setting.
6. Completely cover tuna with cheese and transfer to a sheet pan.
7. Broil until golden and bubbly, 2 to 3 minutes.
8. Cool slightly and eat right away. Serve with something crunchy.
Variation for closed sandwiches
1. Broil as if you were making an open-face sandwich.
2. Remove from heat, lay its bread mate on top and press down.
3. Turn the sandwich so that the unbroiled slice is on the bottom.
4. Place a small skillet over medium heat and add 1 tablespoon butter or olive oil.
5. When butter is melted, transfer the sandwich to the pan, so that the unbroiled slice gets first dibs at the warm fat.
6. Weigh down with a sandwich press or a heavy lid until the bottom side is golden, about 2 minutes.
7. Turn to crisp up the other side (or not). Slice in half and eat right away.