Even though all the flavors in this dish are classically Sicilian, I got the idea for its basic braise of tuna and artichokes from Richard Olney’s cookbook Provence the Beautiful. I added mint pesto because I’ve loved tuna with mint ever since I discovered the pairing in Palermo, but the dish is good without it, although a little mellower and less punchy. As far as I’m concerned, there are two ways to cook tuna; either searing it over high heat, leaving it slightly pink at the center, or slow-cooking it over a low flame or in a low oven until it is gently heated through and tender. Anything in between will give you dry fish. Both ways are traditional Sicilian preparations.To trim the artichokes Italian-style (the way big artichokes are always done in Italian restaurants), first set up a bowl of cold water plus the juice of a large lemon. Working with one artichoke at a time, rip off and discard all the tough leaves until you get down to the tender, light green ones (be scrupulous about this so you don’t wind up with any tough bites). Slice off the tough stem end, leaving about 1/2 inch of tender stem. Slice about 1/2 inch off the top, leaving just the bottom section of the leaves. Peel the tough skin off the stem. Quarter the artichoke lengthwise and cut out from each piece the fuzzy choke and any spiky, purplish leaves. You should end up with four arched, hollowed out artichoke pieces. Drop them in the water and repeat with the other artichokes.
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 1/2 pounds tuna steak, about 1 1/2 inches thick, cut into 2-inch chunks
1 bay leaf, fresh if possible
The zest from 1 lemon
3 garlic cloves, peeled and lightly smashed
Freshly ground black pepper
2 thin slices pancetta, chopped
4 large artichokes, trimmed and quartered (see above) and placed in a bowl of cold water with the juice of a large lemon
1 medium onion, cut into small dice
1/2 cup dry white wine
4 plum tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped (use canned ones if you like, but make sure to drain them)
1/2 cup chicken broth
For the pesto:
Leaves from a few large mint sprigs (about 1/2 loosely packed cup)
A large handful of basil leaves (about a cup)
1 young (unsprouted) garlic clove
A small handful of whole, blanched almonds
Extra virgin olive oil
Marinate the tuna: Place the tuna in a shallow glass or ceramic bowl (sometimes metal can give fish an off taste). Pour over it about 1/4 cup of olive oil, enough just to coat the fish well all over. Add the bay leaf, lemon zest, garlic cloves, and grind on a generous amount of black pepper. Mix the whole thing with your hands so the flavors are evenly distributed. Refrigerate for up to a few hours.
Make the pesto: Set up a medium-size pot of water and bring it to a boil. Drop in the mint and basil leaves and blanch them for about 30 seconds. Scoop them from the water with a large strainer spoon and place them in a colander. Run cool water over them to stop their cooking and to preserve their green color. Squeeze all the water out of the herbs. This blanching will prevent them from oxidizing and turning dark as the pesto sits, always a problem with pesto. Place the garlic and pine nuts in the bowl of a food processor and pulse a few times until they’re roughly ground. Add the blanched herbs and enough olive oil to create a rich texture (about 1/2 cup). Season with a little salt and pulse a few more times until everything is blended but still has a bit of texture to it. Transfer the pesto to a small bowl (you can make it a day before and refrigerate it if you like, but it will lose freshness if made to far ahead). Return the pesto to room temperature before serving.
Choose a large skillet that has a lid and is big enough to hold the tuna and artichokes in one layer. Over medium heat, add the pancetta and about 2 tablespoons of olive oil to the skillet and sauté until the pancetta is crisp, about 4 minutes. Drain the artichoke pieces well and add them and the onion to the skillet. Season with a little salt and sauté until both vegetables are lightly browned, about another 10 minutes. Add the tuna chunks and all the marinade and sauté on one side until lightly golden. Turn the tuna pieces, season with a bit more salt, and add the white wine, letting it boil away. Add the tomatoes and chicken broth and heat through. Turn the heat to low and continue cooking, covered, until the tuna and the artichokes are tender, only about another 5 minutes. Turn off the heat and let the dish sit for about 5 minutes before serving (this gives all the flavors a chance to blend).
Serve in soup bowls with a generous spoonful of pesto on top of each portion. Accompany with toasted baguette slices that have been rubbed with garlic and brushed with olive oil.