Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Wiggle room

Wasn't so long ago we Americans thought tuna were born, lived, and died in cans. Introduced in 1903 when an American cannery ran out of sardines, tinned Albacore tuna remained the only taste of the fish most Americans had until the 1980s and 90s and even 00s, when sushi spread from a food for the coastal elite to the elite of the interior and, eventually, everyone else. A Vanity Fair writer lamented: "This ascent reached its peak on January 1, 2004, when a place called Tiger Sushi opened at the Mall of America, in Minnesota." (Minnesota?! Do you think they know not to cook sushi there?) But what he ignores is that by then, the fast-food sushi counter was a feature of food courts in universities, airports, and yes, malls, even strip malls, across the country.

I admit that my love of the fish began in its canned form and can be traced to Tuna Wiggle, a recipe found in my first cookbook, the brilliant Kids Cooking ("A very slightly messy manual"), published by the folks at Klutz and accompanied with a set of color-coded measuring spoons. Tuna Wiggle's kid-friendly innovation is the jaunty name, but otherwise it's a straight-out-of-the-50s casserole (key ingredients: can of Campbell's Cream of Mushroom and a potato chip topping). It was the sort of thing I never got to eat at home. Child of food co-ops and farmers' markets, I coveted things like Pop-Tarts, Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, and the distinctly whitebread vibe of a "hotdish" created from pre-packaged foods. My revenge: I made Tuna Wiggle myself, at least twice a month, and fed it to my parents (following the standard rules of the table, they had to clean their plates). Note to young parents: When I was about 8, my dad assigned Friday dinner to me, a fantastic idea. For a few years, my parents suffered through meals of not-so-sloppy Joes, pigs in a blanket, and the blandest chili either side of the Mississippi, but by eighth grade I'd graduated to perfect asiago and prosciutto soufflé.

As a nation, we've come a long way from tuna casserole, tuna melts, tuna salad-stuffed tomatoes. Trailing after the tailfins of the popular hamachi sushi (yellowfin tuna) and maguro sushi (meaning simply "tuna," but generally referring to the buttery, red-fleshed and increasingly endangered bluefin), tuna made its way to the part of the plate once occupied by cuts of steak. And then, inevitably, it became burger meat.

The Union Square Cafe opened in 1985, when I was four and really into PB & J sandwiches (to my chagrin and lunch-room embarrassment: the PB was natural and, unlike my friends' Jiffy, separated weirdly in the jar, and the bread was dense, dark, and flavorful). The Cafe was the first of the very successful Danny Meyer restaurants that today dot the teen and twentysomething streets of Manhattan, and was, so I've read, a dining revelation, back when American Nouveau was, um, noveau.

Meyer and his partner Michael Romano published their recipe for Yellowfin Tuna Burgers with Ginger-Mustard Glaze in a 1994 cookbook. The spirit of the dish represented a seismic step in American culinary history, as Molly O'Neill alludes to in Great American Cooking: "Invented when health concerns had Americans searching for leaner cuisine, the Yellowfin Tuna Burger is merged cuisine: a nod both to the American icon and to the rage for sushi and sashimi." Merged cuisine is the lasting emblem of the 90s, one that is so entwined in American eating that our conception of good food will forever more be hyphenated. Potatoes are not mashed, they are wasabi-mashed; no foodie worth her whisk would serve (organic, local, grass-fed) lamb chops without, say, melted feta and a Banyuls-cherry sauce. (The hyphen-effect can be achieved without actually changing the recipe: a creative vocabulary - and the misuse of foreign glossaries - does the trick. It's not Tuna Wiggle, it's an Albacore Tuna and Creamy Mushroom Strata with Crispy Gratin Topping!)

I set out to make the tuna burgers last weekend, selecting my ingredients - where else? - in and around Union Square. Although the rest of the weekend's fare was coming from the farmers' market (including the peaches for the leather), I thought I'd have to get my yellowfin at the massive Whole Foods overlooking the square (representing the rise of what Michael Pollan's Organic Industrial Complex and so not in keeping with the spirit of this project - but naughty fun all the same). Then I saw a fishmongers' stall right there in the market, cleverly equipped with curtains to shield the coolers from the intense sun (a little tuna peep-show) and bags of ice to send you and your perishable purchases off in relative comfort.

Meyer and Romano's recipe notes that the tuna burger is the unplanned but beloved child of Mother Necessity. It's a solution to the problem of the "expensive, delicious, but oddly shaped" tail-scraps of their "Fillet Mignon of Tuna." The fishmonger only had fillets from the fatty belly of the beast. I was so exited to try tuna patty-making that I was disappointed for about a minute with my purchase of two 7-ounce slabs. (No way was I spending $16.99 a pound to treat these two perfect fillets like ground chuck!)

The tuna looked so ripe for eating straight out of the butcher paper that I admit to taking raw nibbles: the phrase sushi-grade is batted around too often these days, but the taste test is best. I stopped my indulgent grazing in time to marinate the fillets in a loose interpretation of Meyer and Romano's glaze (recipe below) and, a few hours later, grilled them to medium-rare perfection, with grilled Asian eggplant and husk-on corn-on-the-cob on the side. Now those are hyphens that'll never go out of style!

Oh, and by the way, Mr. Snooty Vanity Fair: my sister had her first sushi at the age of 11 months on the occasion of our traditional Christmas Eve sushi. In 1993. In my home town of St. Paul, Minnesota.

To wrap this up: I don't consider the Yellowfin Tuna Burger crossed off my Cooking Project list. Another day, when the moons and fish scraps align, I will try again...

Ginger-Mustard-Soy-Honey-Whatever Glaze and/or Marinade


1/3-cup soy sauce
2 tsp. minced ginger
2 large cloves of minced garlic
1-2 tbsp. honey
1-2 tbsp. wholegrain spicy mustard
1-2 tsp brown rice wine vinegar

As a marinade, let sit for an hour or more. As a glaze, bring to a boil, lower the heat and let simmer until it coats the back of a spoon, about 5 minutes.

This is the most un-recipe of recipes. Substitute or add any of following: teriyaki sauce, ginger-flavored soy sauce, pickled ginger, white wine vinegar, miren, Dijon mustard, honey mustard, honey Dijon mustard... (Just don't forget to taste it as you go along.)

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