Choosing a healthy diet today isn’t easy. When I was a kid, class and religion still dictated most of our eating habits. Nowadays pollution, GMO, obesity, and big industry further complicate our choices. The concern over eating a tuna fish sandwich back then was the stink. Today it’s such a loaded issue I take pause before publishing the recipe.
Back In ’94 I had freedom at 13 to flippantly declare, “I think I’m going to stop eating meat.” That was that. My motivation was simply that my best friend was Kosher vegetarian. Her mother was of the SnackWells, butter buds, and kugel crowd. I hung with the mac ‘n cheese with ham and peas and Big Mac crowd. We didn’t understand each other when it came to food or 80s perms and polyester track suits. I would arrive on her doorstep with a Saran-wrapped care package of some delicious and yet non-Kosher fare my mother had cooked. Her response: send me out to the porch, or, in winter, request that I sit my plate on a plastic bag from the nearby Jewish supermarket. After months of crinkly plastic as a placemat, something needed to change.
I was determined for that something to be me. I went vegetarian. While I worked my way through all the carbs, cheese, and veggies I could stomach, the school system could only offer Kraft, iceberg, and gray tomato sandwiches. A couple of meals in and I abandoned the sliced bread idea altogether.
For a while I felt the need to remind people that my vegetarianism was NOT a love for animals. After my freshman year of Ramen and cheese pizza, I seriously questioned my own motives. I was tired of the lack of options, ignorant of other more healthy vegetarian options, and HUNGRY. I introduced fish and seafood back into my diet. I discovered food and all the baggage that comes along with being food-conscious. Ever since then I have lusted after good, nourishing, flavorful food. I’ve also spent a great deal of time researching my choices, to avoid any other flippant or ignorant decisions regarding my body, health, and taste.
The sandwich has always been a sticking point for me. Only recently (since the start of this blog), did I rediscover its worth. Yesterday I wanted a tuna fish with cheddar. Nothing could be more controversial. Nothing could be more complicated.
Right around when I stopped eating tuna the government began publishing research on the toxins found in our fish. Due to polluting the oceans and rivers worldwide, overfishing, selling old stock, and farming like crazy, the seafood situation… well… it stinks. There’s rarely a fish at the grocery store that isn’t a farmed crossbreed, loaded with chemicals, and whose smell doesn’t remind you of something a cat would pull from a dumpster.
Today’s kids have more to think about than being relegated to a distant cafeteria lunch table or to the porch outside. For pregnant women and children, the FDA and EPA advise limiting consumption of large predatory fish like tuna (also shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish) due to their high concentration of the toxin methylmercury. When mercury comes in contact with organisms living in our water systems this toxin is formed. These organisms are eaten by larger ones, which moves up the food chain to humans. The toxin stays in our body from 2 1/2 months up to one year. Repeated exposure increases the level of toxins and can cause effects ranging from shakes and fidgets to difficulty concentrating. Pregnant mothers eating fish can cause delayed motor functioning and learning disabilities in their unborn babies.
While I’m not pregnant or 5 years-old, I am human and susceptible to the same toxins. Still, sometimes I just want some tuna without all the BS and confusion. Tuna has hit the hot list of “super saver” ingredients, so I know I am not the only one who had had this thought. Slipjack tuna (smaller than albacore and yellowfin) is used in light canned tuna, and contains less methylmercury than albacore white. The Environmental Defense Fund’s eco good/bad lists, also indicate that it’s “OK” right now to eat tuna.
So eat I did. You could say my vegetarianism in the 90s was a way to avoid a bad case of kugel, but today’s diets are so concerned with political, environmental, and health threats that diet changes are generally do or die. However, while my choices were incredibly limited as a vegetarian 15 years ago, the variation and creativity available today for different diets is incredible. Blogs like 101cookbooks.com, cookbooks like Peter Berley’s Fresh Food Fast, Heaven’s Banquet and are just the tip of the iceberg for today’s more taste-savvy vegetarian.
There is also improvement in the form of farmer’s markets, an increasing number of whole grain brands, conscientious supermarkets, and artisans focused on the old way of making food. While some choices can be expensive, we are not without a bounty of food information. For my diet I choose not to deny myself. Instead, I choose practicality, knowledge, moderation, flavor, and diversity. From there I mixed up the most delectable, nutty, tangy tuna sandwich there ever was. I relished it, for my one ration per month.
Tuna with red onion, walnuts, olives, watercress and farmhouse cheddar on whole wheat
3 tablespoons mayonnaise
1 container tunafish, preferably a
A handful of walnuts (roasted at 325 in the oven for 10 minutes), coarsely chopped
1/4 cup red onion, 1/2 inch dice
A handful of kalamata olives, pits removed, coarsely chopped (optional)
A few sprigs of dill, minced
1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/8 teaspoon paprika (optional)
1/4 cup fennel slices, cut lengthwise then sliced 1/8 inch thick (optional)
Freshly ground black pepper
Farmhouse or other nutty, semi-hard cheddar
A handful of watercress leaves, washed and woody stems removed
A seeded whole wheat or other whole grain bread of your choice, preferably a handmade loaf, toasted
Combine the tuna ingredients in a bowl. Adjust seasonings and add in more mayonnaise if the mixture is too dry. Place on toasted bread with cheese and watercress and top with the tuna. Enjoy.
1/2 cup peanut oil or other mild seed/nut oil, at room temperature
1 egg yolk, egg at room temperature
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar or freshly squeezed lemon juice
Pinch of salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Use a balloon whisk to combine the mustard, egg yolk, salt, and pepper in a small bowl. Add the oil in at a slow, steady stream, continuing to whisk. Once incorporated, whisk for 30 seconds more until the mayonnaise becomes light and fluffy. Add in the acid and whisk again to the desired consistency. Adjust the seasonings. Keep for a couple weeks in the fridge. Seriously better than store bought, and stupid easy to boot! I had about 5 tablespoons leftover, which could easily be distributed across sandwiches throughout the week.