After the advent of the canned tuna industry in 1903, the iconic tuna sandwich followed in the 1920s. Tuna with melted cheese first appeared in a 1946 recipe with one of the "secret" ingredients that make the sandwich special -- tomatoes. Since that time, tuna melts have included a variety of innovative ingredients and flavorings. Your own palate and preferences will tell you whether any of the innovations and secrets deserve to become part of your tuna melt repertoire.
The highest grade of canned tuna -- solid white albacore -- has the best flavor and texture for tuna melts. For even more flavor, choose the type packed in oil instead of water. Chef Grace Parisi, author of "Summer/Winter Pasta," prefers Italian tuna packed in olive oil. For best results, drain the oil or water from tuna before using it and follow the recommendations of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency about limiting your monthly servings of tuna to reduce mercury in your diet.
A Balancing Act
The best tuna melts have hints of acidity or bitterness to balance the rich fish and cheese and just the right proportion of cheese to tuna. Whole leaves of herbs, such as basil or parsley, thinly sliced tomatoes or sliced dill pickles all add the balance the sandwich needs. To find the right proportion of tuna to cheese, err on the side of too much cheese rather than too little; use about 3 ounces of tuna to 1 1/2 ounces of cheese.
The same pickle that gives a tuna melt a flavorful kick also adds the texture needed to raise the sandwich to perfection. Thinly sliced or diced red onions, sturdy lettuce, such as Romaine, or a dollop of crunchy coleslaw would also do the trick. Grilling the bread or using a panini press to get a crunchy top and bottom are also essential secrets for a tuna melt -- cooking an open-faced sandwich on untoasted bread under the broiler gives you soggy results.
Flavorful ingredients are the secret to an ideal tuna melt. Try adding a bit of balsamic vinegar or Dijon mustard to the mayonnaise you use with the tuna, or add flavorful herbs between the layers of tuna and cheese, such as chopped chives or whole or chopped basil leaves. To amp up the flavor even more, add a dash of cayenne pepper, curry powder or a few red pepper flakes to the tuna mixture .
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