Like the cool dude himself, his "neighborhood" has become more hip and diverse since the beret-wearing Charlie the Tuna was introduced in the 1960s and became an advertising icon for the Starkist brand.
A little field research for the Provence classic Salade Nicoise (more on that follows) led me into the Harris Teeter at St. Andrews shopping center. Have you really looked at the canned and pouched tuna section lately? The selection is amazing.
All of the older, established brands are represented, of course: Starkist, Bumble Bee and Chicken of the Sea. Additionally, there are imports such as Isabel, Nostromo and those for the sustainably minded, Wild Selection and Wild Planet. A store brand is in the mix.
You can take your pick among albacore, yellowfin, skipjack and tongol; solid or chunk light, solid or chunk white; fillets and more. They are packed in water, or in olive or vegetable oil. Some are labeled premium, some gourmet, some low sodium.
Added flavors abound: lemon pepper, sundried tomato and basil, ranch, hickory smoked, and sweet and spicy.
Likewise, prices are all over the map, from as low as $1.19 to $3.99 for a 5-ounce can. A 6.7-ounce jar of fillets was knocking on the door of $10.
Bumble Bee offers a basic primer on tuna types on its website to help sort things out.
White tuna, including solid white albacore and chunk white, refers only to the albacore variety. Albacore tuna is a larger fish with a lighter colored flesh, a firmer texture and a milder flavor than the solid or chunk light fish varieties.
Light tuna can be a mix of a variety of smaller tuna species, most often skipjack, but also may include yellowfin, tongol, or big-eye. It has a slightly stronger flavor, and is often the choice for tuna salads, pasta dishes and casseroles. Chunk light tuna also is the cheapest.
Solid versus chunk indicates the size of the pieces of tuna in the can. Solid tuna has larger, firmer pieces with fewer flakes, while chunk tuna comes in smaller pieces that vary in size.
What about mercury? Albacore (largest tuna) contains the most; light tunas (smaller species) usually are the safer choice. However, some tuna labeled "gourmet" or "tonno" may be yellowfin tuna, a bigger tuna whose mercury levels can approach those of albacore.
Who's most at risk for mercury? Pregnant or nursing women and very young children are advised to not eat more than a little of such fish. Find guidelines at www.nrdc.org/ (the Natural Resources Defense Council) and other places on the web.
So, after getting an email from Ben McC. Moise of Charleston on the subject and enjoying my first Salade Nicoise of the year, I thought it was a perfect time to talk about it. For one big reason, as our local veggies come into season, they will elevate Salad Nicoise into a wondrous warm-weather main dish.
Here is some of what Ben had to say:
"I have had a lifelong love affair with all kinds of salad, particularly the cobb, chopped and Caesar salads, but most particularly with a composed salad called the Salade Nicoise, which has its origins in the south of France. There is the spirited controversy attendant to its composition, competing guardians of the right and true recipe, just as there are Lowcountry debates regarding the ingredients of the Frogmore Stew, and even what to call it: Lowcountry Boil? Beaufort Stew?
"There is one school of thought, which stoutly eschews cooked ingredients, an act of denial, which would eliminate the squeaky blanched haricorts verts or earthy fava beans, the wedges of boiled eggs and the halves of waxy boiled new potatoes. There is another set of claimants to the truth, who lay the law down that in order for it to be a proper Salade Nicoise, the canned tuna, which is considered to be an essential ingredient, must be packed in oil. "Heresy!" shriek the guardians, "The flavor of canned tuna is too overpowering." A nice slab of grilled or pan seared tuna would be far better.
"In many respects, the Salade Nicoise seems to have become a victim of its own popularity, and there seem to have been misdemeanors of flavor and texture committed in its name as some star chefs yield to the temptation to gild the lily to serve the interests of their own personal culinary vision.
"... My most memorable experiences with this wonderful dish came a few years ago when my wife, Anne, and I were traveling in France with our friends, Henry and Cathy Ravenel. My first French Salade Nicoise came at the outdoor dining area of the Agora Cafe, a brasserie overlooking the plaza of the magnificent Palais des Ducs et des Etats de Bourgogne in Dijon.
"While everyone else asked for the croque-monsieur or croque-madame, I spotted the Salade Nicoise on the menu and ordered it with a great deal of anticipation. I was not disappointed. It arrived crisp and gleaming, redolent of garlic with peppery olive oil and briny anchovies. Adorning the bed of torn romaine were crunchy French haricots verts, (a thinner, longer version of our green beans), bright red tomato wedges, wedges of small potatoes, canned tuna (which had been packed in olive oil) black Nicoise or Gaeta olives and capers. I savored every bite and used every bit of the bread to mop up the pungent dressing, a pucker, funky paste of garlic, salt, pepper, olive oil, wine vinegar and a touch of Dijon mustard. Everybody's fare tasted even better with the requisite quantities of the good Burgundian wine.
"I tried it again a week later in Paris at Le Vauban, a brasserie serving traditional French food. ... Le Vauban's Salade Nicoise had nearly the same ingredients we found in Dijon, but with the addition of peppers and onions and a little less emphasis on the garlic. We had done a lot of walking around Paris that day, and this flavorful assembly hit the spot. Out of the many excellent meals we enjoyed on that trip, those wonderful salads still stand out as a palpable food memory, more precious and portable than les souvenirs."
There are lots of interpretations of Salade Nicoise if you go casting about, so you can be creative to a fairly wide degree. I wouldn't think twice about adding small roasted beets to the plate, for instance. And many people leave off the anchovies.
But in general, these ingredients are "musts" in my version of Salade Nicoise: romaine or butter (Bibb or Boston) lettuce, or a combo; small "new" potatoes, boiled or roasted until tender; slender, steamed green beans with a slight "crunch"; fresh tomato wedges or cherry tomato halves; dark Nicoise olives; thinly sliced radishes; a hard-boiled egg; and chunks of a high-quality canned tuna.
A good dressing to marry it all together is a homemade French-style vinaigrette that includes a touch of mustard. But I admit, the last time I "cheated" with a store-bought (Trader Joe's Light Champagne Vinaigrette), and it was delicious.
Here is a classic version of the recipe found at the Food Network's website, www.foodnetwork.com. A little more elaborate recipe that also rates very well is found at www.saveur.com/article/Recipes/Rte-7-Salade-Nicoise.
1 pound red-skinned potatoes, sliced 1/3-inch thick (or small whole potatoes)
2 tablespoons dry white wine
10 ounces haricots verts or thin green beans, trimmed
4 large eggs
1/4 cup white wine vinegar
1/2 shallot, minced (about 2 tablespoons)
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
Freshly ground pepper
3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
8 cherry tomatoes or small cocktail tomatoes, halved or quartered
1 head Boston lettuce, leaves separated
6 radishes, trimmed and quartered
2 (51/2-ounce) cans Italian or Spanish tuna packed in olive oil, drained
1/2 cup Nicoise olives
Put the potatoes in a medium saucepan; cover with cold water and season with salt. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat and cook until fork-tender, about 5 minutes. Drain and transfer to a medium bowl; drizzle with the wine and let cool. Reserve the saucepan.
Meanwhile, bring a separate saucepan of salted water to a boil. Fill a bowl with salted ice water. Add the haricots verts to the boiling water; cook until crisp-tender and bright green, 2 to 4 minutes. Drain and immediately plunge into the ice water to cool; drain and pat dry.
Place the eggs in the reserved saucepan and cover with cold water by about 1 inch. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat, then cover, remove from the heat and let stand, 10 to 12 minutes. Drain, then run under cold water to cool. Peel under cold running water.
Make the dressing: Whisk the vinegar, shallot, mustard, thyme, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and pepper to taste in a bowl. Whisk in the olive oil in a slow, steady stream until emulsified.
Toss the tomatoes in a small bowl with salt and pepper to taste. Add about 1/4 cup dressing to the potatoes and toss. Quarter the hard-cooked eggs.
Divide the lettuce among 4 plates. Arrange the potatoes, haricots verts, radishes, hard-cooked eggs and tuna on top.
Pour any juices from the tomatoes into the dressing, then add the tomatoes to the plates. Drizzle with the dressing and top with the olives.