Mayo-Free Mediterranean Tuna Salad Sandwiches Recipe

Loaded with Mediterranean flavors, including plenty of fresh olive oil, capers, olives, fennel, celery, and a splash of lemon.

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Photograph: Vicky Wasik

Why It Works

  • Briefly soaking the red onion in red wine vinegar tames its pungency and gives it a pop of tartness.
  • Flaking high-quality oil-packed tuna makes a luxurious salad.
  • A splash of fish sauce or minced anchovy adds a subtle savory hit.

Some folks just don't like mayo. I can't pretend to understand them, but I know they exist, and I respect how frustrating it can be to avoid mayo given how ubiquitous the sauce is, especially in classic American salads like tuna. When I'm going mayo-free, I like to take a Mediterranean approach to the dish, tossing the tuna with a generous amount of good olive oil, briny capers, olives, and vegetables like celery, fennel, and red onion.

So let’s talk tuna: If you want a really good mayo-free tuna salad, shelling out for fancy oil-packed tuna can make a big difference. Price alone, though, isn't the best gauge. The main problem with canned and jarred tuna is dryness. Most of the meat that comes from tuna is very lean, and the high heat of the canning process can severely dry it out. This is often the case with higher-end tuna as well. Oil-packed fish is usually better than water-packed, since the oil helps coat the dry fish protein and make it seem moister. Even more helpful is to invest in a fattier cut of tuna, most often sold by Spanish companies under the name ventresca, which comes from the much fattier belly (think of the difference between regular lean akami sashimi and fatty toro). I like the ventresca from both Ortiz and Tonnino. Make no mistake, though; this stuff isn't cheap.

You may wonder whether you can get away with a lesser canned tuna, shredding it as finely as possible, as in the mayo version above, then bathing the whole thing in olive oil to moisten it up. I'd discourage that here, since you'll end up dumping a ton of extra oil into the dish to compensate for the dry tuna, and, unlike mayo, that much oil will become overwhelmingly greasy and heavy. This is a dish for which you're much better off using the moister ventresca tuna and not breaking down the fish into tiny shreds.

You may wonder whether you can get away with a lesser canned tuna, shredding it as finely as possible, then bathing the whole thing in olive oil to moisten it up. I'd discourage that here, since you'll end up dumping a ton of extra oil into the dish to compensate for the dry tuna, and, unlike mayo, that much oil will become overwhelmingly greasy and heavy. This is a dish for which you're much better off using the moister ventresca tuna and not breaking down the fish into tiny shreds.

Author breaks apart drained ventresca tuna into large flakes by hand over a mixing bowl.

Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

Instead, I like to flake the fish with my fingers into roughly half-inch chunks, though there's no need for any kind of exactness here.

Then, because the fish flakes are bigger, I also cut my vegetables bigger, slicing the celery, onion, and fennel into strips. I rapid-pickle the onion, soaking it in a vinegar bath for 15 minutes, since the tamed raw-onion flavor and the tartness are both improvements.

For the olives, you can use any pitted briny kind, green or black, cut into quarters. A squeeze of lemon juice adds a little more brightness, while parsley gives it a fresh green flavor.

Last but not least, I add a dose of umami, in the form of either fish sauce or anchovy.

Here, I go for fully toasted slices of rustic sandwich bread, like a Pullman loaf, which I brush with olive oil to give them a crunchier bite. A little peppery arugula on the sandwich, and it's all set.

The finished tuna salad sandwich, piled with arugula.

Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

June 2016

Recipe Facts

Active: 25 mins
Total: 25 mins
Serves: 4 servings

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Ingredients

  • 1/2 medium red onion (about 4 ounces; 110g), thinly sliced

  • 1/4 cup (60ml) red wine vinegar

  • 20 ounces (560g) oil-packed tuna, preferably ventresca (see note), drained and flaked by hand into roughly 1/2-inch pieces

  • 1 stalk celery (about 3 ounces; 85g), sliced thinly on the bias

  • 1/4 medium bulb fennel (about 1 ounce), cored and thinly sliced

  • Handful flat-leaf parsley leaves, roughly chopped

  • 2 tablespoons (30ml) drained brined capers

  • 1/4 cup (60ml) drained pitted briny black or green olives, quartered lengthwise

  • 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons (90ml) extra-virgin olive oil, plus more as needed

  • 2 tablespoons (30ml) fresh juice from 1 lemon

  • 1/2 teaspoon (3ml) Asian fish sauce or very finely minced oil-packed anchovy fillets (about 2 small fillets)

  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

  • 8 slices rustic sandwich bread, such as a Pullman loaf, brushed with olive oil and toasted

  • Arugula, for garnish

Directions

  1. In a small bowl, combine onion and vinegar (vinegar should just cover onion; add more if it does not) and let stand 15 minutes.

  2. Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, combine tuna with celery, fennel, parsley, capers, olives, olive oil, lemon juice, and fish sauce or anchovy. Drain onion well, then add to bowl. Mix gently until thoroughly combined; season with salt and pepper. Dress with more olive oil if desired.

    The tuna salad ingredients are combined in a mixing bowl.

    Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

  3. Spoon tuna salad onto 4 slices of toast, top with arugula, then close sandwiches and serve.

Notes

The quality of the tuna you use will make a difference here. I recommend oil-packed ventresca tuna, which comes from the richer, fatty belly; it's moister and more flavorful than other canned or jarred tuna. I like the ventresca from both Ortiz and Tonnino.

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Nutrition Facts (per serving)
568 Calories
28g Fat
30g Carbs
46g Protein
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Nutrition Facts
Servings: 4
Amount per serving
Calories 568
% Daily Value*
Total Fat 28g 36%
Saturated Fat 4g 21%
Cholesterol 66mg 22%
Sodium 838mg 36%
Total Carbohydrate 30g 11%
Dietary Fiber 3g 11%
Total Sugars 5g
Protein 46g
Vitamin C 9mg 47%
Calcium 116mg 9%
Iron 4mg 21%
Potassium 983mg 21%
*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.
(Nutrition information is calculated using an ingredient database and should be considered an estimate.)