Friday, October 3, 2014

an extraordinary ordinary sandwich

Today I'm going to tell you how to make something you don't need anyone to tell you how to make - except that you do, actually need someone to tell you this, and you don't even realize it.

Some of you make this sandwich (or a similar sandwich) regularly, and you know exactly what I mean - the extraordinary poetry of this entirely prosaic thing.  Some of you probably remember this sandwich (or a close analog) from childhood, and you think you've outgrown it, and that I've taken leave of my senses.  I haven't.  On this point, at least.  Listen closely.

If you're like me, you have a great appreciation for a good sandwich.  In an ordinary week, you might eat quite a few sandwiches.  Many of them might even be good.  But it will be much less regularly that you experience the sandwich at the peak of its existence - the telos for which the form sandwich was created, if you will.  The end toward which it strives.

And that is the toasted sandwich.  Crispy on the outside, faintly buttery, warm on the inside, and gooey with just the right amount of cheese.  The grilled cheese sandwich is a classic in this genre.  The grilled ham and cheese is an absolute standby (and a staple in my household - my dear husband is a grown-up person, and still seems to find a particular happiness in having me make him a nice toasty warm grilled ham and cheese sandwich.  I think I could make a gourmet meal that was less thoroughly appreciated).

But particularly extraordinary - and particularly underappreciated by today's aspiring home gourmet - is that staple of yesteryear: the tuna melt.

I know what you're thinking.  Tuna salad sandwiches and tuna noodle casserole and suchlike fare were a cross you bore in the name of your mother's grocery thriftiness during your childhood, and you aren't going back there any more than you're going to force your family to drink powdered milk.  But I must exhort you to reconsider. I tell you, you don't know what you're missing.

First of all, my family was on a tight budget too, and therefore my mother, like yours, probably bought the cheapest tuna available.  This is a mistake you must avoid.  Of course I only buy canned tuna on sale, but if I am patient (and buy a bunch when there is a sale), I can get all of it for $1 a can.  But I will not compromise on one point: it has to be solid white (or albacore) tuna.  This kind:

Because I'm afraid everything else just tastes like a tin can.  I should also note that Julia Child has something or other to say about canned tuna in water being totally inferior to tuna in oil, and the woman usually knows what she's talking about, but I think tuna in oil is totally gross (I might have had it once as a child by accident), so I only ever buy it in water.  Your mileage may vary.  So you have to start there.

Now, in case you've spent your entire adult life boycotting tuna due to some misbegotten manifestation of childhood trauma telling you that it's anything other than absolutely delicious, I will remind you how to make tuna salad.  You need to cut up some onions.  If you're using white or yellow onions, remember that they're very sharp when raw, and mince them fine, unless you have asbestos-mouth, in which case, go ahead and eat a whole onion as a snack - knock yourself out.  (Red onions and scallions are somewhat less hot.)  You don't need a lot of onion for a single can of tuna:

And, as you see, you don't need a lot of mayonnaise, either.  If I were making an ordinary tuna salad sandwich, I would use more than that, but I short it a little when I'm making the grilled version, because the heat tends to make the tuna salad a bit melty. (Celery is also a classic ingredient, but I try to keep it simple. But by all means add more vegetables.) These photos are way too poor to get a good look, but the final mix is a little on the dry side:

But there's no risk of the sandwich being dry, because it will have all sorts of yummy melted cheese.  Now, before you mix your tuna salad, you drain the tuna water into the dog's (or the cat's) food bowl, and said animal goes nuts.  Here's Bailey, who polished off the tuna-infused kibble in about ten seconds, and is assiduously polishing the empty bowl in case she missed any:

She would be mortally offended to hear that there's anyone who turns his nose up at tuna.

The next step is important: you have to meticulously administer butter (or margarine - I use the spreadable stuff so I don't gouge holes in my bread when I use it at refrigerator temperature) equally to each and every molecule of the bread:

And you will notice that I flipped them so that they were mirror images, and would align perfectly once I got the sandwich assembled.  This is not overkill.

By the way, you'll notice that I'm using bread that was hand stone ground by illiterate native women who practice tribal religion from 100% organic high-fiber extra-virgin gravel fermented in the gullet of free-range chicken, in order to accomplish a colonic cleanse under the guise of having dinner.  Like so:

Uhhhhh no.  I've had the whole colonic cleanse thing (and anyone who clicks a link with that name has no right to complain about what it leads to, for the record), and I find it to be about as far from comfort food - or comfort, or food - as imaginable.  I eat vegetables (not pictured here), and lots of dairy, try to keep a reasonable limit on the junk food, and avoid anything allegedly edible that tastes like construction material.  That is healthy enough. The above bread is my go-to bread and pretty much the only one I buy (though I also make bread from scratch reasonably often), for one simple reason: it makes the very best sandwiches, period.

What other qualification could be relevant?

Anyway, depending on your stove, you may also want to pre-heat the pan.  My usual grilled sandwich pan is a Calphalon one, which, on the one hand, never sticks; on the other hand, it is very slow to heat on my stove, but then suddenly overheats.  You have to watch it like a hawk or it will burn your grilled sandwich.  This is probably because it's a snooty millenial pan that only wants to be used for egg-white omelets.  On this most recent occasion I used a lovely copper pan from the thrift store, which heats beautifully, and you can even tell when it's done heating because it smells hot.  The old ways are always better.

Anyway, once your pan is hot and your bread is buttered and your tuna salad is mixed, you put down one slice, butter-side down; then you carefully cover it with a single layer of Swiss cheese.  You could also use another highly flavorful cheese, like extra-sharp cheddar, or maybe Havarti, but absolutely nothing bland (as a snack I like Muenster and Monterey Jack and mozzarella, but you don't want any namby-pamby cheeses for a grilled sandwich. You need something with serious personality).  Then you carefully spread your tuna salad over the cheese.  Half the mixture you prepared will make one perfectly fine sandwich (and surely you know someone else who would love to rediscover this magical goodness with you!), but if you're really hungry, you can pile the whole bowl on just one sandwich, and make sure to eat with a napkin on your lap.  Also, wash your hands first so you can lick your fingers with impunity.  (You're welcome.)

Then, of course, the second slice goes on top.  Here you may be able to see that the cheese is just starting to melt:

Turning it is where the real precision work comes in.  Depending on your stove and how high you have the heat, it will take from two to five minutes on a side.  You'll be able to smell when it's overdone (unless you like your grilled sandwiches slightly black, in which case wait to turn it until you can smell a faint burning), but it's ready to be turned when you slide a spatula under the corner and it easily lifts up because the bread has become crisp.  Before that, it will start to collapse if you try to turn it, so if you see the collapsing, give it another minute and try again.  I managed this one perfectly, if I do say so myself:

The second side is a bit mangled, but you don't need to see that.  So there you have it - the tuna melt you didn't know you'd been missing all these years.

I made one of these for my mother-in-law (and one for me) the last time she visited; I don't often get to share them, because my husband (like my FIL, in fact) doesn't like seafood in general, or tuna salad in particular.  So it was a real treat to get to sit down and enjoy my gooey tuna melt with someone else.  She said it was "luscious," because, of course, she has excellent taste.  Really, it almost seems too indulgent to be food for a Friday, but we're Catholic, and by golly, it's tradition.

I hope you love it, too.


  1. I like tuna in water myself....I'll have to try the White Tuna...I just buy the cheaper stuff and haven't had any issues with it...we just had tuna patties for dinner tonight! My cats were all over me too...even before I opened the cans...they just knew. Haaa!!! I've never tried a grilled tuna sandwich dh would probably like that!

  2. Yum! I make my tuna salad with greek yogurt instead of mayo, and I add dill relish, curry powder, and parmesan cheese. Yum!

  3. I love tuna or salmon salad sandwiches, grew up eating them. Dh didn't & thinks they are gross. So I only get to indulge when I am at my parents' these days. Sigh! The tuna melt sounds delicious!