IMPROBABLE AS it may have seemed a few years ago, canned tuna is one of the hottest ingredients around today. Good quality stuff, of course, not lunchbox fare. Imported from Spain or Italy, it can sell for as much as $50 a pound. And if it’s ventresca, the richest meat from the belly of the tuna, prices can go even higher.
Paying that kind of money for canned tuna may be surprising, but what’s downright shocking is how amazingly simple it is to make something quite like it at home.
Tuna prepared this way is somewhere between fresh and canned. Let’s called it “conserved,” to honor its inspiration, the old Italian tradition of preserving meat under olive oil, sometimes called conservata.
Especially now, when Southern California’s summer albacore run is heating up and neighborhood fishermen are bringing home their catch, this is something you’ve just got to try.
Here’s how you do it: Cut fresh tuna in big chunks and poach it in olive oil flavored with garlic and spices over very low heat just until the meat begins to flake -- about 15 minutes. Cool in the pan and then store, in the flavored olive oil, in the refrigerator.
The flavor is rich and pure without a trace of fishiness and the texture is downright meaty -- none of that mealiness you sometimes get with commercial stuff. And because you’re controlling the process, you can flavor the oil any way you want, lending subtle hints you won’t find in regular canned tuna.
You can use this conserved tuna in any way you’d use the best canned stuff: make a salad with potatoes and green beans as they do in southern France, or with white beans as they do in Spain. Mix it into a spicy fresh tomato sauce for pasta. Fold it into a caper-y mayonnaise. Stuff it into roasted red peppers. Or just top bruschetta with little chunks of it, being sure to spoon over some of that good olive oil.
About the only thing you can’t do with this tuna is stick it in the pantry and forget about it. Because tuna and other meats are so low in the acidity that would prevent bacterial growth, they must be pressure-canned to be absolutely safe.
On the other hand, conserved tuna will last quite nicely in the refrigerator for a week or more. And this process is so easy you can make it with only a pound or two at a time. Once you taste it, there’s no way that much will last that long.
This quickly conserved tuna has become popular with some chefs and has been included in several recent restaurant cookbooks. I found examples in “The Young Man and the Sea” by David Pasternack of New York’s Esca, the upcoming “A16: Food & Wine” by San Francisco’s Nate Appleman and Shelley Lindgren, and the ever-reliable “The Zuni Cafe Cookbook” by Judy Rodgers.
As I tried out the recipes, the first thing that became apparent was how flexible the technique is. You can cook the tuna briefly or for a long time. You can cook it in water or you can cook it in oil. You can flavor the oil or you can leave it plain.
All of the techniques work, though each results in a slightly different dish. Cooked in water, tuna tastes more purely of fish and the texture is firmer and meatier. Cooked in oil, the flavor is more complex and the texture is softer and richer. Cooked for a long time in oil, the tuna absorbs even more of the garlic and spice flavors, but dries out a bit. Cooked briefly, the flavor isn’t quite as developed, but the texture is nicer.
In the end, I settled on adapting a little bit from several different recipes, cooking the tuna relatively briefly in olive oil flavored with garlic, red pepper, a bay leaf and a big piece of lemon peel.
Along the way, I learned a couple of things. First of all, the quality of the tuna you start with does make a difference but thankfully not as much as you might think. This is important, because fresh tuna can cost the Earth these days.
Though the yellowfin tuna that cost almost $30 a pound at the gourmet grocery was a bit richer in flavor and texture, the $6-a-pound frozen albacore from Trader Joe’s was still very, very good (after thawing overnight in the refrigerator).
The best option, of course, is having a neighbor who’s a fisherman. If you should find yourself in that happy situation, be sure to ask for the fattier belly portion, which they will probably be only too happy to give you (most folks prefer the leaner steaks).
Cut the fish into the biggest chunks you can while maintaining something approaching a cube shape (this will ensure that it cooks evenly). If the tuna’s about an inch thick, that’s how wide you should cut the chunks. Generally, the bigger the chunks, the better, up to about 2 inches.
It’s important to use as small a pan as will hold the tuna and to crowd the chunks of fish together as tightly as possible. Use only enough oil to cover; the flavor seems to be richer this way. I used a 1-quart saucepan to cook 1 poundof tuna, and it took only 1 cup of oil.
Probably the most important thing is controlling the temperature. If the oil gets too hot, the tuna will turn tough. Start the fish in cold oil and cook it over the lowest flame you can manage.
If you see more than an occasional bubble, use a flame-tamer to reduce the heat further.
Turn the heat off as soon as the fish begins to flake. It will continue to cook slowly as the oil cools. The color will change from pink or red to creamy tan, but it will certainly never brown unless the oil is way too hot.
Once the tuna is cool enough to handle, transfer it to a clean, lidded container and pour as much of the flavored cooking oil as will fit over the top. Whatever is left over, spoon onto warm toast, including as much of the sludge of seasonings from the bottom of the pan as you can.
Eat this by yourself and try to keep from laughing. Fishermen are notorious for keeping their secrets, and fish cooks deserve a few of their own.
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Imports reign, but West Coast rises
CONSERVING tuna takes very little time and even less effort, but if you’re in a real hurry, these recipes will work quite well with high-quality canned tuna, which can be found at import stores, on the Internet and even at some Southern California farmers markets. Traditionally, the best tuna has been canned in Spain, Portugal and Italy: Look for such brands as Albo, Genova, Ortiz and As do Mar. But there is a new group of artisanal tuna canners operating along the West Coast, under brands including Dave’s Albacore, Wild Pacific Seafood, Tuna Guys, Wild Planet and Shamrock, which is sold at the Torrance (Wilson Park) and Studio City farmers markets. In general, look for brands that offer large pieces of tuna, often labeled as “fillet” rather than “chunk,” packed in high-quality olive oil.
-- Russ Parsons
Total time: 25 minutes, plus cooling time
Servings: Makes about 1 pound, or 2 cups flaked
1 pound fresh tuna (albacore or yellowfin), cut 1 to 2 inches thick
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
2 tablespoons sliced garlic
Freshly ground black pepper
1 bay leaf
1 piece lemon peel (about 3/4 inch by 2 inches)
1 cup olive oil, plus more if necessary
1. Trim any skin, bones or dark blood spots from the tuna and discard. Cut the tuna into large cubes (at least 1 inch) and place them in a 1-quart saucepan. Add the salt, red pepper flakes, garlic and a pinch of black pepper and stir gently to distribute seasonings evenly. Arrange the tuna snugly in the pan so you won’t need to use too much additional oil. Add the bay leaf and lemon peel and pour over enough olive oil to just barely cover the fish. It will be about 1 cup, though you may need a little more for topping off.
2. Place the saucepan over very low heat and cook until the tuna just begins to flake, about 15 minutes. The oil may get hot enough that a few bubbles rise from the bottom, but it should not simmer. The top temperature shouldn’t exceed 160 degrees.
3. Cool the tuna to warm room temperature in the oil before transferring to a container for storage in the refrigerator. If you’re going to use the tuna the same day, refrigeration is not necessary. The tuna will keep, tightly sealed and refrigerated, for at least a week, but not more than 10 days. Warm to room temperature before using.
Each quarter-cup serving: 125 calories; 13 grams protein; 1 gram carbohydrate; 0 fiber; 7 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 26 mg. cholesterol; 312 mg. sodium.
Tuna, potato and green bean salad
Total time: 50 minutes
Servings: 4 to 6
1 pound conserved tuna, plus some of its oil, at room temperature
1/4 cup finely diced red onion, divided
1 1/2 pounds small boiling potatoes, unpeeled
Freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon capers
3/4 pound green beans, stem ends removed
1 tablespoon olive oil
4 anchovy fillets, preferably salted
2 jarred roasted red peppers, such as piquillo, cut into strips
2 teaspoons chopped parsley
1. Place the tuna in a bowl and stir it with a wooden spoon to break it into large flakes. Stir in just enough of its oil to moisten it, 1 to 2 tablespoons. Add 1 tablespoon of the red onion and season to taste with salt.
2. Steam the potatoes until they are tender, about 20 minutes. As soon as the potatoes are cool enough to handle, slice them at least one-fourth-inch thick and place them in a mixing bowl. While the potatoes are still warm, season them with one-fourth teaspoon salt and a pinch of black pepper, about 2 tablespoons of the oil from the tuna and 1 teaspoon of vinegar. Gently stir in the capers and another tablespoon of red onion and arrange the seasoned potatoes in a low mound on a platter.
3. Steam the green beans until they are tender, about 6 minutes. Place them in the same mixing bowl and season with one-eighth teaspoon salt and a pinch of pepper, another tablespoon of red onion, the fresh olive oil and another teaspoon of vinegar. Scatter the green beans over the top of the potatoes on the platter.
4. If using salted anchovies, rinse them well to soften them and remove excess salt; if using oil-packed anchovies, slice each fillet lengthwise into 2 strips. Spoon the conserved tuna over the beans and garnish it with the remaining red onion, the pepper strips and the anchovy strips. Sprinkle with chopped parsley and serve immediately.
Each of 6 servings: 362 calories; 22 grams protein; 26 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams fiber; 19 grams fat; 3 grams saturated fat; 36 mg. cholesterol; 845 mg. sodium.
Spaghetti with tuna and cherry tomatoes
Total time: 30 minutes
Servings: 4 to 6 as a main course, 6 to 8 as a pasta course
1 pound spaghetti
1/2 pound conserved tuna, plus 2 tablespoons of its oil, at room temperature
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
4 whole, small, dried red chiles (such as chile de arbol)
1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds, crushed
1 pound cherry tomatoes, cut in half (about 2 cups)
4 anchovy fillets, chopped
1 teaspoon red wine vinegar, or to taste
2 tablespoons minced fresh basil
1. Bring a large pot of liberally salted water to a rolling boil and add the spaghetti. Meanwhile, chop the tuna (you should have about 1 cup); set aside.
2. Heat the fresh olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. When the oil is hot, add the garlic, chiles and fennel. Saute, stirring frequently, until the garlic is lightly golden and the spices are fragrant, 2 to 3 minutes.
3. Add the cherry tomatoes and the anchovies and cook for about a minute to break down the anchovies. Add the tuna and use a wooden spoon to break up the tuna and the tomatoes into a chunky mixture. Add the reserved tuna oil, red wine vinegar and salt to taste. The flavor should be sweet, fragrant and bright. Keep warm over low heat until the pasta is done.
4. When the spaghetti is done, drain it, reserving about 1 cup of the cooking water, and add the noodles to the skillet. Turn the heat to high, add the reserved pasta cooking water and cook, tossing the noodles to coat lightly with the sauce. Toss in the basil, season to taste with salt and serve immediately.
Each of 6 servings: 494 calories; 21 grams protein; 62 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams fiber; 18 grams fat; 2 grams saturated fat; 19 mg. cholesterol; 317 mg. sodium.