We're obsessed

From tuna to tofu, some food is always on our minds

Buck's Tuna, Whole Foods : To replicate the store version it's important to use an electric mixer instead of a food processor. Buck's Tuna, Whole Foods: To replicate the store version it's important to use an electric mixer instead of a food processor. (Mark Wilson/Globe Staff)
By Sheryl Julian
Globe Staff / May 6, 2009

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A food obsession can revolve around something luxurious - like French bubbly or grass-fed steaks. But we think it's more likely that whatever strikes your fancy is considerably more ordinary. We know people obsessed with certain jams and the perfect kind of toast to spread them on, with melons at a particular point of ripeness, with a blend of coffee, or a cake to go with it. From time to time, we'll feature an obsession and after some tinkering in the kitchen, perhaps a recipe too. Here are some things we can't get enough of.

Tuna salad is child's play. Open a can, tip the contents into a bowl, mash with mayonnaise, and you have something comforting and wonderful. If you're the worst cook on earth and operate in a kitchen with nothing but unused cutlery in a drawer, you can still make tuna salad. Buy the can with a pull-tab top. All you need is a fork.

As easy as it is to make tuna salad at home, every diner, deli, and takeout sells it, and apparently consumers want it. That may be because the main ingredients - canned tuna and mayonnaise - are two of the world's greatest foods. Add a tiny bit of chopped celery for crunch and you have a purist's formula.

Somewhere along the line, home cooks elaborated on that simple version, adding all kinds of foreign elements to the basic dish: curry powder, sweet pickle relish, yogurt, mustard, hard-cooked eggs, chopped cilantro, garlic powder, and onion flakes. (Really, if you like garlic and onion that much, why not just crush a clove or grate a little raw onion instead?) I've had tuna salads that are so sweet, I expect them to be served with cookies. Some are mashed beyond oblivion, undoubtedly the result of a food processor's unforgiving blade. People aren't willing to leave the dish alone.

So I was delighted when a friend served me Buck's tuna salad from Whole Foods Market, which tastes like - tuna and mayonnaise. No surprises, just celery, red onion, and black pepper. I hardly ever buy takeout food, but my friend, who is a terrific cook, buys Buck's all the time. Whenever we have lunch together, this is the centerpiece. She's obsessed.

I seem to have caught her obsession.

But I don't buy Buck's tuna. It's $7.99 a pound, whereas the Whole Foods' 365 house brand 6-ounce can of solid white albacore tuna in water costs $1.49; the other ingredients don't amount to much. What I've done is examine the ingredient label and learn to make it like Whole Foods does, which was close to what I was making before I was introduced to Buck's.

Buck Rollins, now facility team leader at the Bread & Circus Bakehouse in Medford, told me how the tuna was named - and it wasn't for him. In 1997, he explained, "There were two Bucks on one team in Brighton. Buck was a young woman. I honestly do not remember her last name." At the time, he was associate regional prepared foods coordinator and spent a lot of time in the Brighton store, which had a thriving prepared foods department. There has always been what Rollins calls "a push and pull" between the stores, which want to make their own dishes, and the commissary kitchen that supplies the stores. So the stores were asked for their favorite recipes, which would go to the commissary to be made, and then distributed to the stores.

The woman named Buck sent in her salad recipe and it became a hit. "Buck's tuna salad is probably the second or third highest dollar [prepared foods] 'mover' in our region," said Rollins. The region includes the Northeast and the Jersey Shore. Many stores sell Buck's tuna already packaged in the refrigerator case.

It tastes homemade. It's distinctly not deli tuna, it doesn't have that awful pureed texture, and it's not over-sweetened with relish, like so many tuna salads are. Put this mixture between two slices of crusty bread with lettuce, or inside chewy whole-wheat toast, and you'll have a satisfying lunch.

Buck's tuna salad is made with dolphin-safe dry-pack albacore tuna, which goes into an electric mixer with mayo, onion, and celery. Because it's in a mixer instead of a food processor, you get flakes of fish and it never turns to mush. There's just enough mayo to hold it together, and the celery and red onion seem insignificant - until you taste. It has the right amount of crunch and onion bite.

The key to good cooking is knowing what to add to a dish. You also have to know what to leave out.