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Name that tuna!

David Rosengarten, editor of the Rosengarten Report, offers his advice on the best tuna for tuna salad, and his favorite recipe too.

I make no secret about it: I am obsessed with tuna salad sandwiches. Yes, part of the motivation for my entire tuna interrogation in The Rosengarten Report was finding great European stand-alone tuna — but a big part of it also was finding cans of tuna to replace the good supermarket ones that used to yield terrific tuna salad. It’s kind of funny, but of the 500 or so “Taste” shows that I shot, the one that gets mentioned to me most often by people who watched “Taste” on the Food Network — is the tuna salad show! Maybe they saw the passion in my soul.

SO, FIRST order of business, what type of tuna makes the best tuna salad? After making tuna salad with scores of tuna cans over the last few weeks, I finally have a pretty definitive view of the subject. The best tuna salad comes from canned tuna —

*that is firm, no matter whether it’s white tuna or reddish tuna; medium-firm, though it makes “mousse-ier” tuna, is good, too.

*that is rich, reasonably moist, but not too oily.

*that is flavorful, but not too fishy.

*that is fairly low in salt, but with discernible salt.

Tuna salad can be ruined by tuna that’s very creamy — soft-mushy, by tuna that’s bland and by tuna that’s excessively salty. Almost all of the American supermarket tunas are now out of the question. But the very surest category for tuna salad today is American Northwest tuna packed in its own juices, as long as it’s flavorful; it works so well because the meat is firm and firm tuna makes you “chew” the salad a little. Another exciting way to go is reddish tuna from Europe packed in olive oil, as long as it’s firm.

HOW DO YOU MAKE THE BEST TUNA SALAD? I am a tuna purist. I like my tuna salad simple. If you have great tuna, there’s no reason to make it any other way.

Step one: Open the can, leaving the lid attached. Press down on the lid, turn the can upside-down, and press all the juices and oils out into the sink.

Step two: Drop the remaining tuna into a small mixing bowl. Begin mashing it with a fork. After a minute or so, add the mayo — Hellman’s, or Best Foods, of course! Don’t even think about making your own mayo for this dish! How much should you add? I think the bare minimum for a six-ounce can of tuna is two tablespoons, though I find that a little dry. I think you’ll prefer somewhere between three and four tablespoons of mayo. After you’ve dropped the mayo in, start mashing like you’re possessed. One of the keys to my ideal tuna salad is a good 3-4 minutes of vigorous mashing, which yields a smooth, elegant, springy, quality.

Your tuna salad is done.

Are you surprised that nothing else is in it? I must say, I have, over the years, had tuna salads with stuff in them, prepared by other people, that were surprisingly good. But I can’t bring myself to do it. I like tuna salad plain. The only addition I occasionally make is very finely diced chunks of celery (near the heart is best).

Bread? Well, my classic tuna sandwich is on white bread. Even cottony, supermarket white bread works for me. This is probably a nostalgia thing, since that’s the tuna sandwich I grew up with. But I must tell you: I recently warmed up in the oven a long hunk of Italian bread Pugliese-style, cut so that the sponge was on one side and the bottom crust on the other, warmed so that the crust got crunchy-brown, slathered with mayo and spread with copious amounts of great tuna salad, served open-faced, and I was in tuna salad heaven!

Do I put anything on top of the tuna? No. That’s another quirk of mine: I like my tuna salad sandwiches “undressed.” I do occasionally insert a little crunchy iceberg lettuce into the white-bread sandwich, but it is highly unnecessary. And, one common ingredient that never, ever gets near my tuna salad — is a slice of tomato. Sure, it looks good. Sure, it seems logical. But for some bizarre reason, when you’ve tasted tomato, then tasted tuna, your next bite of tomato is going to have an oily-fishy after taste. At least on my palate. Go figure.

PREMIUM TUNA PACKED IN ITS OWN JUICES One of the most amazing discoveries in my tuna talent hunt was the cottage industry that has spawned in our own Pacific Northwest. Yes, if you’re looking for tuna packed in olive oil, the likely source will be Europe. But if you’re looking for a new kind of premium tuna — cleaner-tasting, fresher, less oily — you must look towards Washington, Oregon and, occasionally, California.

Here are three great brands of premium tuna packed in its own juices:

-Great American Smokehouse and Seafood Company Deluxe Albacore Tuna

-Dave’s Home-Style Santa Cruz Albacore Fillets

-Katy’s Smokehouse Very Fancy Hand-Packed Albacore Prime Solid White Tuna

PREMIUM TUNA PACKED IN OLIVE OIL The vast preponderance of upscale tuna that you’re likely to see in stores falls into this category — my second favorite tuna category. This has been the tuna staple of Europe for generations and generations, the stuff most likely to show up on tables there for tapas, antipasto, hors d’oeuvres or mezes. Today, some American producers are making it as well.

Usually, premium tuna packed in olive oil is considerably darker, more reddish, than the “supermarket solid white” we’re used to; that’s because the Europeans (who make so much tuna in this style) don’t use albacore, the tuna with the whitest flesh. Hey, albacore can be real good — but, generally speaking, darker canned tuna has more flavor.

Here are three great brands of premium tuna packed in olive oil:

-Ortiz Bonito Del Norte

-Papa George Gourmet Albacore in Olive Oil

-Buon Italia Solid Tuna in Pure Olive Oil

VENTRESCA TUNA Well, there’s no question about it in Tunaland: Ventresca is it. Ventresca is the category you need when you want an extra-special tuna treat, or when you want to make your family or friends gasp with amazement and delight.

What is ventresca? The name comes from the Italian word for belly, which is “ventre.” Yup, you guessed it, ventresca is canned tuna made from the tuna’s belly, from the sexy, velvety hunk known in sushi bars as “toro.” Happily, there are a good many ventresca brands in the U.S. right now from Italy and Spain.

Here are three great brands of ventresca:

-Tre Torri Ventresca Di Tonno

-Buon Italia Ventresca Di Tonno, Tuna Belly in Pure Olive Oil

-Albo Filetes De Atun Blanco, Ventresca

David Rosengarten is the editor of the fact-filled food and wine newsletter, The Rosengarten Report. For more information on tuna, including David’s complete brand rankings, favorite recipes, best mail order sources and more, visit