Tuesday, April 12, 2011

One of my greatest lessons: making Tuna Salad on a commercial scale

When I was going through the very beginnings of a phase of "finding myself" in my late teens early twenties, a process that (now that I think of it) consisted mostly of losing myself, I was able to get a job at a salad and sandwich shop in Philadelphia.

I had never worked in a kitchen before, so this job was as at entry-level a level as possible. It wasn't a chain, but the owner had some ideas about expanding, so he had some good recipes and procedures for making the fool [edit] lol, typo, that should be "food" but I'll leave it in there, tarot reference.

 It was really very good food, healthy, and the best part is that you could get fed at a discount, which was good because I was sharing an apartment with three other people and money was very tight. There were also free sodas while we were working, which wasn't as good health-wise, but at least it was fuel. It was the first  job I had that supported me living away from home.

The owner, Mr. Stein,  was Jewish and maybe somewhat stereotypical in that regard: he wanted to avoid wasting food, so he would scold if you didn't slice a carrot down to the very end of the carrot, and wanted portions to be consistent. But this was all part of the business, and actually the basis for some very good values for me as I continued on the journey of finding./losing myself.

One of the first things I was assigned to do was to make a batch of tuna salad. This might seem trivial, but it involved a can of tuna fish larger than any I had ever seen before, about the size of a bowling ball, and a gallon tub of mayo, pounds of celery and onions. The owner assigned this to me personally, and warned me sternly if I wasted the can of tuna, it was expensive, and would come out of my paycheck, so I needed to follow the recipe. But he also gave me some guidelines, which I will always remember:

1) You want the salad firm, not runny, so you drain the tuna.
2) There are three ingredients that will most dictate the consistency of the salad: the mayo, the tuna, and breadcrumbs.
3) You drain the tuna, and then add the mayo *but don't add all the mayo the recipe calls for*. Add about half of it first. Then mix it in. Then add a little more of the mayo the recipe calls for, keep mixing, making sure the consistency is right. You can't take out the mayo if you overdo it! So this is important.
4) Then, you want the tuna salad to *stay* consistent. That is why you add the breadcrumbs, these will bind the salad, and also absorb moisture that later leaches out of the celery, onions and the tuna. Also, if it turns out you add a little too much mayo, you can add more breadcrumbs than the recipe calls for to compensate-- but not too many more, because that will make it seem like you are adding too much "filler" and detract from the tuna-ness of the salad.

I was genuinely afraid that I would ruin that salad, but I used his guidelines and my common sense, and it turned out ok. I had never made that much food for anyone before, it was enough for what seemed like 100s of scoops of tuna salad. He tasted and approved, it made me feel good.

So, he wanted you to follow the recipe strictly unless it wasn't best for the "spirit of the salad" to follow the recipe strictly.

On a sadder note, I betrayed his trust at one point-- I was in the walk-in fridge doing an inventory, and there was a case of strawberries. I had run out of money that weekend, spending frivilously mostly, and hadn't eaten for about a day. So I ate some of those strawberries, they were so good-- and the manager opened the door as I was in mid-bite.

She saw that I stopped it immediately and didn't say anything at the time so I finished the work day, but the assistant manager (who was a friend of mine) called me up later at home, said the manager had told the owner, and he was really mad, so the assistant manager said I should not return afterwards [edited from previous, I recall it a little more clearly].

But I will always remember the lesson of the tuna salad-- in any endeavor, ascertain which is the "meat", which is the "sauce" and which is the "binder". Don't add in too much of what you can't take out later on, but if you add a little too much, you can compensate a little with the opposite.


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