How to Use Canned Tuna for Good and Not Evil
Ditch the stigma and embrace the tuna melt lifestyle.
Composite image; base image by Michelle Arnold / EyeEm
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No matter how long you’ve been cooking for yourself, you just have those days where the burnout is too powerful to overcome and you stare listlessly at your fridge and cupboards willing something edible to spontaneously come into existence. It is useful, on these nights, to remember that you almost always have a can or two of tuna tucked somewhere in the back of a cabinet and, surely, the means to make said can of tuna into a satisfying meal. Whether it’s the cheap stuff, or fancy imported Spanish tuna packed in peel-top tins with olive oil, a dish that any respectable adult would not be embarrassed to admit that they prepared is only minutes away. We promise. If the entire idea of canned fish grosses you out, then, respectfully—grow the hell up. There’s a whole world of shelf-stable and umami-packed seafood out there that you’re just choosing to remain ignorant of, and for that, we pity you. But if you embrace the canned fish section of your local market, then perhaps you’ll find some new ideas for how to doctor up a can of tuna, plain as it may seem, into something pretty great. (Careful with that mercury, though. Jk. Kinda.)
1. Actually Good Tuna Salad
Tuna salad sandwiches do not, by law, have to taste like they’ve already been partially digested. Weird, I know, but it’s true. Put as much TLC into making a good tuna salad as an Italian grandmother does into her Sunday gravy. Mayo is not enough, friends. Chopped celery—and its leaves!—plus red onion, maybe some parsley or fresh dill are a good place to start. Then, consider a bit of whole grain mustard, or Dijon, and perhaps some chopped capers or olives for a little more brininess. And always, always, plenty of salt and fresh cracked pepper. Now you’re ready for sandwiches for days, or just dig in with some chips or crackers for a snack.
Once you’ve settled on your ideal tuna salad sandwich, topping the whole thing off with some sliced avocado for an extra creamy, fatty texture element, or chop it up and toss together with the tuna itself. With a perfectly ripe and soft avocado, you can even cut back a bit on the mayo and substitute a bit of the mashed fruit.
3. Tonnato Sauce
Using better-than-your-average canned tuna for this classic Italian preparation is ideal here. Thoroughly blend mayonnaise, tuna, anchovies (embrace your canned fish aisle), lemon juice, and olive oil. You now have a spread or dip that works perfectly as an appetizer when served with bread or chips, but also as a dip for crudité.
4. Salad Niçoise
A traditional salade Niçoise is really just tomatoes, hard-boiled eggs, olives, anchovies, and olive oil, and it turns out that adding some good canned tuna to that combo makes absolutely perfect sense.
5. Grain Salads
If you’re on the grain bowl train, we see you. One of the easiest ways to meal prep is to get a big batch of quinoa or farro cooked early in the week, and using canned tuna in place of other proteins just means a little bit less cooking on Sunday nights for you. We’d suggest including other veggies like snap peas and cucumbers, maybe some olives, and salty, hard cheeses like feta for a lunchtime combo that takes very little prep time.
6. Tuna Cakes/Burgers
Whether you’re leaning toward the crab cake flavor profile (serving it up with a creamy tartare sauce) or something more akin to a salmon burger, thoroughly drying out your canned tuna and adding some binding agents like egg or breadcrumbs and turning them into patties is one more way to transform a lifeless can of fish into something not too shabby.
7. Tuna Melt
In the vein of our previous statements about tuna salad, a tuna melt can be truly transcendent if executed properly. Like all good sandwiches, the foundation matters. Choose a hearty bread with some flavor like a sourdough or rye. Be sure to use plenty of butter in the pan when the grilling actually happens. The cheese that belongs on a tuna melt can be a divisive topic, but cheddar and Swiss are perennial go-to’s for such a diner classic. (We’re not sticking our neck out for any cheese in particular.) Pickled things almost always improve a sandwich, so we’d suggest a classic dill sandwich pickle, or if you’re looking for a little spice, some pickled jalapeño.
This one is old-school, indeed. Tuna noodle casserole is the kind of thing that you can make out of things you have in your pantry at any given moment. Egg noodles, canned tuna, frozen peas, and some cream. (Or, if you’re doing it really old school, some cream of mushroom soup.) Liven it up with fresh mushrooms, if you’re feeling it, and top the whole thing with buttery breadcrumbs for a nice crunch.
9. White Bean Soup
Again, really get into the spirit of cooking from your pantry, and pull together a soup with canned white beans, tuna, and some chicken stock. Add some fresh greens and canned tomatoes, like a hearty kale for a Portuguese-style soup where the sausage is swapped out for fish. Or toss the beans and tuna with some olive oil and red wine vinegar, salt, and pepper, and serve it up on toast for a light lunch or crostinis for an easy appetizer.
A bit of canned tuna naturally lends itself as an addition to a classic Greek-style pasta salad with cucumbers, tomatoes, olives, and feta. But it’d also work great in a warm pasta dish dressed with a light garlicky white wine sauce and olive oil, with the chopped olives of your choice and some roughly chopped parsley.