Canteen's Spring Vegetable Salad with Tuna Mayonnaise

Premshree Pillai/Flickr
Dennis Leary.
Every week, SFoodie calls a local chef to ask what he or she is putting on the menu that night, and what inspired its creation.

Dennis Leary is not a man to stand still. Not only did I have to catch the chef between shifts at The Sentinel, his FiDi sandwich shop, and Canteen, where he's working a full Friday-night shift, in the meantime he had to work off a little excess energy at the gym, too. I got in touch with Leary just after he arrived at Canteen and had two hours to prep before dinner service began. Before we got into specifics ― a spring-vegetable salad he's serving tonight ― we first talked about how he puts together nightly specials.

Leary: Specials? They're completely based on what's expedient: what do I have, what do I need to sell. I'm not selling leftovers, but business never goes quite the way you expect, and if it doesn't sell at dinner, it's on the brunch menu.... I'm not waltzing romantically through the farmer's market. I don't have time to do any of that shit.
Say the fish guy calls, and I ask him what does he have? He says sand dabs, and I say, let me get five pounds. He's got true cod; I don't really like true cod, but it's better than anything else they've got right now. So I'll build my menu around them. I went to Vik's Market in Berkeley and got these great chickpea noodles, cool chiles, stuff I don't even know the name of. So I've got 20 minutes to come up with something. I'm not throwing stuff together, but I've been at this for a while and I know what works.

SFoodie: So what about tonight, then? Tell me about one of the dishes.
On Tuesday, I had tuna on the menu. It was a slow night, and I didn't have tuna written into the next two nights' menus, so on Wednesday I salted, pressed, and cooked five pounds of tuna in olive oil. I shredded the meat and mixed it with mayonnaise.

So tonight we're serving it over raw asparagus, raw artichoke, raw spring carrots ― everything raw ― as well as winter savory and some pecorino, this delicious sheep's milk cheese. I did it last night, and it was clean and simple. I could tell my guys how to get everything going in two hours. My whole life is flying by the seat of my pants, and after 20 years of cooking like this, I've decided this is my style and I'm not going to change it.

How'd you decide on the tuna mayonnaise? I've made it over the years. It's a classic ― you know, vitello tonnato. I just like dried, salty, fermented fishy things ― but it's not so far out that it's going to freak people out. "Tuna mayonnaise" doesn't sound all that appetizing. The waitress last night asked me if we should call it "tonnato sauce," and I told her, call it whatever you want.

I suppose at this point the mayonnaise is a part of my repertory. I don't try to repeat, knowing that I'm going to repeat a dish inevitably. I try not to work without some sense of precedent. Everything I do is based on something I've read ― I love those old 1970s cookbooks. Those 1970s gourmet chefs ― that's the tradition I'd like to be part of. It's not glam at all.

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