Mediterranean tuna salad (and tuna melt)

Tuna salad is a food that was a weekend staple when I was growing up. Aside from the Butler family's popular sliced apple, cheddar cheese and popcorn lunches, both of my parents liked to make, serve and treat tuna salad in their own way. 

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My mom would serve a scoop atop halved beefsteak tomatoes with sprinkles of lemon pepper. My dad would make a "no shrapnel" version – no onion, celery or hard-boiled eggs – with just canned tuna, mayo, salt and pepper to go between white bread sandwiches. 

I started making my own tuna the moment I started paying my bills, so I've had a bit of time to figure out what I'd like my version to look like. With my love of Mediterranean flavors – and a search to swap out yogurt over mayo whenever possible – I've added some non-traditional ingredients to what's been a perennial classic my whole life.

I recommend using higher-end, chunk light tuna – you know, the kind that doesn't give you mercury poisoning – and strained yogurt. The strained yogurt is important because you don't want to add a bunch of water to your tuna after draining the canned tuna. The strained yogurt is also thicker and creamier, mimicking the mouthfeel of mayo when paired with a bit of extra virgin olive oil. I like to bring in a majority of the salt through briny chopped capers, and a touch of freshness and spice with raw shallots. If you don't like capers, leave them out but you'll need to up the amount of salt. You can also leave the shallots out if you don't like that mild garlic-ish, onion-ish flavor. 

To take it a step further, I included steps to make a tuna melt using a panini press or a stove top. A few weeks ago, I'd begged my mom to give me one of her waffle irons. I was so excited to use it when I got back to Dallas, but discovered that what my mom thought was a duplicate waffle iron was, in fact, a panini press. Hence, the sudden urge to make hot, pressed sandwiches. This melt also has a slight Mediterranean flare with mozzarella cheese over a cheddar, American or pepper jack.

The recipe below serves four for a tuna salad – I highly recommend adding it to my Summertime Salad Niçoise – or four tuna melts.

What you need

For tuna salad

2 5 oz cans of tuna, preferably chunk light

4 tbsp strained plain yogurt, like Fage or Siggi's

2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

1 tbsp plus 2 tsp capers, finely chopped

Half of 1 small shallot, finely minced

1/4 tsp smoked paprika

1/2 tsp salt

1/2 tsp freshly cracked white or black pepper

For tuna melt

1 recipe tuna salad (above) 

8 slices of whole wheat sandwich bread

1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese

Cooking spray

Condiments of choice like spicy mustard or mayonnaise

How to do it

For tuna salad

Open tuna cans and strain out water. Pour tuna into a medium-sized mixing bowl. Add yogurt and olive oil and, using a spatula, stir until incorporated. Next incorporate capers, shallots, paprika, salt and pepper with a spatula.

Set the tuna salad aside if you're planning to make a tuna melt, as described below, or place in refrigerator to chill if using for a cold sandwich or salad. If chilled, tuna lasts up to three days in the refrigerator in a tightly sealed container.

For tuna melt

With a panini press:  Spray panini press with cooking spray and turn on to medium-high heat. After allowing the press to heat for at least 3 minutes, add one slice of bread and sprinkle 1/4 cup of mozzarella cheese by hand evenly over the bread slice. Allow cheese to begin to melt for at least 1 minute, then scoop 1/4 of the tuna over the cheese with a metal spoon and spread evenly over the bread slice. Add the top slice of bread - this piece should have your desired condiments on it. Close the panini press and let the sandwich toast for at least 3 minutes until a deep golden brown, or to desired toastiness. (To maximize your time, you typically can toast two sandwiches at a time in a panini press.) Remove the sandwich from the panini press.

With a skillet: Coat a skillet with cooking spray, and turn on the stove to medium-high heat. Once the pan begins to smoke - or a droplet of water sizzles immediately when it hits the pan - turn down the heat to medium. Add one slice of bread and sprinkle 1/4 cup of mozzarella cheese by hand evenly over the bread slice. Allow cheese to begin to melt for at least 1 minute, then scoop 1/4 of the tuna over the cheese with a metal spoon and spread evenly over the bread slice. Add the top slice of bread - this piece should have your desired condiments on it.

Allow the sandwich to cook for about two minutes or until a dark golden brown on the bottom slice of bread. Press the top slice of bread down firmly with the back of a spatula to help seal the sandwich, then flip it to the opposite side. Cook the sandwich for two more minutes, and then remove from the heat.

Serve the sandwiches immediately while hot. I like to slice my sandwiches in half and to serve them with a chopped salad or other greens, like The World's Best Salad.

You shouldn't try to store these. They'd be lousy leftovers but they're simple enough that you could make them in 10 minutes or less if you already had the tuna made.