Cooking with Canned Tuna

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Why you should consider it

Canned fish is one of those things that gets a bad reputation undeservedly. I like to think of it as the equivalent of a subcompact car; it's something that you only buy when the real thing is out of reach. However, canned tuna can be versatile and, when used properly, quite tasty, all for a decent price point.

I have to be honest; when I was younger, I was one of the above. I believed firmly and without doubt that the best place for any type of canned fish was mixed with mayonnaise and placed between two slices of bread. Then, I got to university and things changed a bit. Not for the main reason you may think, though.

Cost was certainly an issue, oh yes; fresh tuna is currently over $20 per pound where I live and thus well out of reach. However, when I purchased by first cans of tuna for my own use, I made a discovery that rocked my world: canned tuna is good in its own right. Furthermore, I discovered (mostly through trial and error) that it is quite versatile.

Nutritious and cheap

Canned tuna has a very interesting set of properties from the home cook's point of view: it is cheap (depends on the brand, I admit; I'll get into that later), tasty, widely available and keeps, for all intents and purposes, longer than an equivalently sized piece of granite. OK, this is workable.

Did I mention that it's nutritious already? If I didn't, I have now. Because it is. A cursory glance at the label on a can of tuna (store-brand) yields the following data:

Serving size 1 can

  • 1.0 grams of fat, none of it trans or saturated
  • 60 milligrams of cholesterol
  • 440 milligrams of sodium (a bit high but, again, it varies on the brand; many are lower than this)
  • 120 calories
  • No fewer than 26 grams of protein (over 20% by weight!)

The ingredient list reads well, too: Skipjack tuna, water, vegetable broth and salt. The cost for this seemingly magical superfood? 77 cents.

For a more complete breakdown of nutrition, Nutrition Data gives a complete breakdown of all relevant, and indeed present, nutrients. A quick glance reveals that canned light tuna is a great source of selenium (useful in thyroid metabolism), as well as vitamin B12 and niacin .



Downright tasty, too

There are many varieties of canned tuna available at nearly every supermarket. There are a number of different textures/"cuts" that reflect the different levels of meat separation. "Solid" is essentially a small fish steak in the can (sans bones), while "flake" is quite loose and can really only be used for salads. "Chunk", which I prefer, is in the middle of the two extremes.

Tuna can be prepared in a number of ways. Sandwiches are the old standby, but think outside the bread: pastas, salads, rice dishes and a wide variety of options can be called upon instead.

A simple pasta recipe would read as follows (for 1 person):

  • 3 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 2/3 cups of canned tomatoes (or fresh; I choose canned because the tomato juice can also be used to impart more flavour)
  • A pinch of basil
  • A pinch of oregano
  • 1 tsp capers (more to taste)
  • 4-5 black olives, quartered
  • 1 thick (0.5-1.0 cm) slice of onion
  • 1/4 of a red pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon of garlic powder (or 1/2 to 1 clove of real garlic, to taste)
  • 1 can of chunk light tuna packed in water (this is important)
  • 3 ounces fettuccine or spaghetti noodles
  1. Drain tuna
  2. Mix with onions, garlic powder and oregano is a small bowl
  3. Heat a sauce pot, sprayed with cooking spray, over medium heat
  4. Add tuna and onion mixture; saute for 3-5 minutes
  5. Add tomatoes and tomato paste; cook for 5-10 minutes over medium-low heat
  6. Heat a larger sauce pot with water to boil pasta to al dente level
  7. Add pepper, olives, capers and basil.  Cook to reduce.
  8. In the last few minutes, drain the pasta and mix it in with the sauce. 
  9. Serve, with a salad

This is a very simple recipe, yet it works every time without fail!



Safety concerns

Canned tuna is often given a label as unsafe, both due to its environmental impact and also due to concerns over toxins and contamination. The FDA sets a limit of up to 12 ounces of light tuna per week due to methylmercury concerns. The logic as to why tuna even contains mercury is simple: It is an apex predator in its ecosystem, and thus eats all things below it in the food chain. Each of those absorbs a small amount of mercury from its environment (stored as fat-soluble methylmercury), which is retained in each higher link in the chain, in a process called bioamplification, or biomagnification. Health Canada says that most varieties of canned tuna are safe to consume regularly, although albacore could cause concern. Most canned tuna that I purchase is skipjack, which tends to have lower levels.

Another concern with tuna is environmental sustainability. Of the available canned varieties (commonly skipjack, albacore and yellowfin, among some others), the NOAA  data seem to show that skipjack is the least overfished (search for species under Fishwatch).

Conclusion

 Well, here we are then.  Hopefully I have helped to shed some light on this much-maligned pantry staple and have given some of you inspiration to take a can of tuna, a delicious, nutritious and versatile ingredient, and do something with it other than make a sandwich.  At the risk of making a fish pun, "school's out"!

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