Smoky & Spicy Tuna Salad

Butter lettuce tuna wraps ready.

David WilhelmRecipes1 Comment

The summers between my college years were spent working in a collection of different restaurants and nightclubs in Manhattan. It was during these summer stints that I fell in love with the idea of someday owning my own restaurant. Of all the restaurants I worked in, my favorite was Maxwell’s Plum located on the Upper East Side.

maxwell's plum interior
Maxwell’s Plum Interior

It was owned by Warner LeRoy, son of the famous film producer Mervyn Leroy. Warner also owned Tavern on the Green and the Russian Tea Room which were two of the most iconic restaurants back in the 70’s and 80’.  When he bought Tavern on the Green he spent $10 million in renovations resulting in the highest revenue producing restaurant in the entire country. Later, he bought the Russian Tea Room and spent $32 million renovating it. Even today no one spends this kind of money on restaurants but Warner had Dad’s money and he put it to good use becoming New York’s true impresario of upscale dining. I had the privilege of waiting on him on several occasions and found him to be a larger than life character who loved food, wine and restaurants and his passion rubbed off on me, although I didn’t realize this until later in life.

At Maxwell’s I worked with several very interesting characters, mostly European. One of my favorite waiters was a young German, Kurt, who had a great sense of humor and killer wit.  The menu at Maxwell’s was quintessential ‘Continental Cuisine’ (see my earlier ‘Melon & Prosciutto’ post) and one of the most popular appetizers was the French classic ‘Escargots Bourguignonne’.

One busy night while waiting in the kitchen to pick up his 10th order of escargots for the evening, Kurt turned to me and said dryly “What’s with these people… everyone knows they come in a can!”

So this is a rather circuitous way of getting to the subject of tuna salad but every time I open a can of tuna I’m reminded of Kurt’s comment with the moral of this story being it’s not necessarily what you start with but it’s what you do with it. Now, don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying that I prefer canned tuna to fresh but if I just want something quick to nosh on or I don’t have the inclination to spend $29 a pound for Ahi at Gelson’s, canned Charlie works fine in a pinch. That said, this tuna salad is awesome when made with fresh tuna grilled over charcoal with some wood chips. In fact, next time you plan on grilling some tuna throw on a couple extra steaks and use them the following day to make one epic tuna salad.

So back to the “it’s what you do with the tuna that counts.” When creating dishes I often like to combine what I call the 4 S’s… savory, spicy, sweet and smoky.

It’s like our Jimmy Burger which combines pimento cheese, Applewood smoked bacon, and jalapeno jam. It’s wicked good and elevates a burger to a whole other level. I like to do the same thing with tuna fish. My version includes smoky chipotle chiles, roasted Poblanos, and bread & butter pickles (that’s the sweet) along with plenty of celery and red onion for crunch. Not only is it great in a sandwich but is a great filling as a lettuce wrap snack… check it out. To paraphrase the line in the Buick commercial “it’s not your grandma’s tuna salad!”

Recipe – Smoky & Spicy Tuna Salad


» 1 each Large fresh Poblano chile
» 12 oz Canned solid tuna, in water or grilled chilled tuna steaks
» ½ cup Mayo
» 1 TBS French’s Mustard
» ½ cup Bread & Butter Pickles, drained, chopped 1/8″
» 2 each Celery stalks
» 1/3 cup Red onion, diced ¼”
» 2 TBS. Chipotle chile puree *
» 1 TBS. Chopped parsley


If I’m roasting just one or two Poblanos I like to do it just over an open flame. Turn flame to high and using tongs position the chiles on top of the flame. You want to make sure it is completely blackened on all sides but not to the point where it starts to become ashen color. Once blackened put it in either a paper bag or a container with a lid and allow to sit for 15 minutes.

flame blistered poblanos
Flame blistered Poblanos

Meantime, if you are using canned whole chunk tuna, drain it first, then place into large bowl and flake with a fork. Next add mayo, mustard and pickles to bowl. Cut celery stalks in half lengthwise and then cross cut into ¼ pieces. Add to bowl along with red onion, chipotle puree* and chopped parsley.

canned charlie
Canned Charlie

Next take your Poblano and cut the stem end off. Split open the chile, discard any seeds on the inside and lay chile blistered skin side up on a cutting board.

blackened poblano
Blackened Poblano

Using a chef’s knife simply scrape off the blackened skins. There will always be a few charred pieces that remain. I like the rustic look they add to a dish but if you’re fussy about them scrape them off.  However, do not run the chiles under water to remove the skins. While this is less messy it removes the flavorful oils that the roasting process produces. Dice the chiles into ¼ inch pieces and add to the bowl.

cleaned poblanos
Cleaned Poblanos

Using a large fork or spoon mix all ingredients until combined. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use. Some separation of liquids and solids will occur after it sits in the fridge but simply stir to combine prior to serving.

*Note: Chipotle is my favorite chile so I always have a jar puree in my fridge ready to spice up eggs, tacos or stews.

Chipotle Chiles en Adobo
Chipotle Chiles en Adobo

*Chipotle chiles can be bought as a powder but are best when they come whole stewed in Adobo, which is a thin, spiced chile paste. Pour the contents of the can, including the sauce into a blender or mini food processor. Then add 1 TBS of water into the empty can and swirl to gather all the remaining adobo and pour into blender. Puree until smooth, cover and refrigerate.

enjoy your freshly made tuna salad


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  1. Jorge

    The Maxwell’s Plum Interior looks like from out of an Indiana Jones movie… so awesome!

    This recipe looks very easy to do… I never thought about how to charred the peppers this way… Great recipe and nice throwback story about David Wihelm!