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The only thing better than a good recipe? When something’s so easy you don’t even need one—like with these tuna patties. Welcome to It’s That Simple, a column where we talk you through the dishes and drinks we can make with our eyes closed.
Crab cakes are a dish I conveniently forget about. It could be because I live farther inland than I’d prefer, where you’d never find them on a restaurant menu. More likely, however, it’s because fresh crabmeat is exorbitantly expensive if I wanted to make them at home. While I could settle for canned crab, truthfully, it’s not good. That leaves me with the little tubs sold in the seafood department of my local market for almost $50 a pound.
But a few months ago I was visiting my in-laws in Florida and enjoyed a crab cake so packed with sweet meat, I longed for it even before I took my last bite. Back home, I was reinvigorated and eager to replicate them, but the cost once again deterred me and I left empty-handed. Instead, I turned to something I already had stacked in my pantry. Canned tuna can become a star in just 15 minutes, and without the hefty price tag. Call them tuna cakes or frugal crab cakes, if you will—I call them delicious.
Here’s how to make tuna patties
This makes enough fish cakes for two people, but it’s easy to double, and equally nice as leftovers the next day if you’re solo. The prep time and total time are swift enough for a weeknight, or you could assemble the tuna patties in advance if you want to get ahead (more on this below).
To start, of course, you’ll need tuna. My preference isn’t actually canned tuna, but jarred, from Tonnino. But use whatever you have—both work well. Grab 2 (5- to 7-ounce) jars or cans of tuna, ideally olive-oil-packed since it’s so much more flavorful and moist, but water-packed works fine. Drain the tuna fish, dump it into a large bowl and flake it with a fork.
Add a couple of big spoonfuls of your favorite spreadable condiment. Dijon mustard, mayo, harissa, pesto, tahini, hot sauce, or even plain yogurt will do the trick. Then add whatever seasonings you want: the zest of a lemon, a small handful of chopped herbs (like fresh parsley or cilantro) or scallions, a spoonful of capers or chopped olives, a little bit of minced shallot or garlic, a big pinch of a spice or spice blend like garlic powder, red pepper flakes, smoked paprika, or za’atar. Taste and season with salt and black pepper, then push the mixture to one side.
Crack 2 large eggs into the empty space in the bowl, lightly beat, then add about 1/4 cup bread crumbs. Panko, fresh bread crumbs, or those dry finely ground breadcrumbs work. Don’t have them? Finely crush some crackers, chips, or pretzels. Mix until just combined. Test to see if a patty holds together. If not, add more crumbs.
Divide the tuna mixture into 4 portions and shape each into patties 3–4 inches wide. Place on a plate or baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Chill for at least 10 minutes, or up to 1 day.
Heat a generous drizzle of neutral or olive oil in a nonstick skillet over medium heat until shimmering. Fry the patties, in batches if needed, until deeply golden brown and crispy, 2–4 minutes per side. Serve with a squeeze of lemon juice or with another dollop of whatever condiment you used. If you have leftovers, keep in an airtight container in the fridge. No need to reheat: They’re great at room temperature or even cold, on a salad, slid onto a toasted bun, or tucked inside a split pita.