I grew up in New York. My soul food is: bagels with scallion cream cheese, whitefish, and nova salmon. Pastrami on rye with mustard. Deli-style tuna salad, nearly puréed. Half sour pickles. Heavily-seeded rye bread.
Most of this, I can’t get on a daily basis. For starters, there is no decent whitefish in Seattle. I’m gluten intolerant and try to eat high-fat/low-carb when I’m eating optimally, so not so much on the bread (except for treats or NYC visits). I do make my own pickles, and the I Heart NY Deli on Roosevelt has pretty great pastrami. But there are foods I miss.
Surprisingly, tuna salad is one of those foods. That New York deli style tuna salad is different somehow. I’ve spent years trying to replicate the tuna salad at a little schmancy foods store in Manhattan called Todaro Bros. It’s puréed with [lots of lemon juice] [Edited 2014: Apparently no lemon juice, according to the store, but I like it anyway], good quality mayonnaise, and finely grated carrots and celery. I still go out of my way when I visit New York to get to Todaro’s and eat some.
But the holy grail tuna salad in New York is something called smoked tuna salad. Tangy, smokey, a little orange, and utterly addictive. Not easy to find; I found the perfect one once in some obscure little deli in midtown and never found anything as good since, although plenty of delis carry a version. It’s been probably seventeen years since that perfect smoked tuna salad, and I still can’t get the taste out of my head.
I’ve tried to replicate it, like the Todaro tuna. I’ve used actual good quality wood-smoked tuna from the St Jude tuna guys at the farmers market here (they also have great canned tuna). I’ve used regular tuna with smoked paprika. I’ve failed. A special-association taste is hard to fake. Your tongue knows when you’ve gotten it wrong.
Today, I got it right… by accident.
I was making lunch for a bunch of people building a sukkah. I thought I’d purée the tuna salad quickly in the food processor, with homemade mayonnaise and grated carrots, going for my best shot at that Todaro tuna. Then I realized I’d put in too much mayo for the tuna, and didn’t have another can. While a friend ran to grab me another from her house, I impulsively threw in some leftover Loki chunk smoked salmon from the freezer.
The secret revealed.
Okay. It’s possible this isn’t what delis do to make smoked tuna salad. But I think it is. Reason 1: it’s the same color, a little more orange than tuna salad. Actual smoked tuna isn’t that color. Reason 2: Smoked salmon is much easier to find in New York than smoked tuna. Reason 3: It tastes exactly right.
If you’ve never had New York deli style smoked tuna salad, or if you crave it from 3,000 miles away, try out this recipe and tell me what you think. You can get nearly all the ingredients from local producers (aside from lemons): canned tuna, smoked salmon, carrots, optional celery. It would make an amazing tuna melt, or just a good lunch with some vegetables, tomatoes, cheese and lettuce.
Smoked Tuna Salad, New York Deli Style
Proportions are variable according to your taste. Final product should be fairly smooth, puréed with texture and not liquidy.
- 1/2 cup to 1 cup smoked salmon (not lox — West Coast chunk style)
- 1-2 cans of tuna
- 3-5 tablespoons of homemade mayonnaise (link is for my older bowl recipe… I’ll give you the food processor recipe below)
- juice of 1 lemon
- 1-2 carrots
- 1 stalk of celery (optional)
- pinch of salt
- herbs or spices to your taste. However, they’re not really necessary with this version.
1. Make mayonnaise and set aside
2. Grate carrots and celery finely. The easiest thing is to attach a grating top blade to a food processor and grate them right into the food processor body, in which you’ll make the tuna.
3. Add to carrots and celery: tuna, salmon, mayonnaise, lemon juice and salt. Start with the lesser end of the mayonnaise, and you can always add more.
4. Pulse food processor as it combines ingredients. Add more mayonnaise as needed. Keep pulsing until puréed with a textured consistency and not liquidy.
The linked directions above work great for a bowl. This is the food processor version. Note that it contains a whole egg, whereas bowl mayonnaise contains just a yolk.
- 1 egg
- juice of 1/2 lemon or 1-2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
- pinch of salt
- 1 tablespoon of mustard
- 1 cup of olive oil
- saffron, basil, garlic, or other flavors as desired
1. In bowl of food processor crack egg, add lemon juice or vinegar, salt, mustard, and any flavors. Pulse a few times.
2. Add top to food processor but leave open the space where you can pour things in while the food processor is running.
3. Measure out your cup of olive oil. With the food processor running, SLOWLY pour the olive oil in, in a very thin, steady stream. If you pour too much, take a break and let it emulsify. Keep going until you’re out of oil. You have mayonnaise.