Still Life with Italian Tuna, by Caron Eastgate Dann.
Recipe below: Tonnato Crostini with Roasted Peppers and a Spring Herb Salad
I learned how to make vitello tonnato when I working at Le Madri restaurant many years back. An Italian cook named Matteo was ordered to teach me the tonnato part of the thing. He spoke only a few words of English, but my Italian was somewhat passable, so I thought we’d get on well enough. We started by making a simple maionese in the food processor, using egg yolks and olive oil. That went fine. Then he told me to add Italian tuna, anchovies, and capers, and then to “make liquid” the sauce with wine, veal cooking broth, and a little lemon juice. The smell was gorgeous. And it was familiar, too, because my mother used to make a tonnato, but she used Hellmann’s, and its odd sweetly sharp taste came blasting through, despite all the anchovies and such. This was so much better.
So Matteo went off and left me to “make it perfetto.” After a bit of adjusting it seemed pretty perfetto to me, so I called him back for a taste. He tilted the food processor bowl toward him. He looked troubled. “More strong,” he said, and he walked away. Okay. So I added more anchovies, more capers, more lemon. He returned again, looked into the bowl, and now he was clearly pissed. He repeated “more strong,” but louder. So I began to add yet more capers. Then he kind of lost it. He screamed at me in Italian: I refused to follow directions, I did as I fuck pleased, and did I think I was the chef? Sweat dripped from his ears. He looked like he was going to hit me. It was getting very bad quickly. He called me “stupid” and then another word I didn’t understand. Finally the actual chef came over to see what the commotion was. Would I be fired over tonnato? I sure hoped not. I really liked this job. But we quickly got to the bottom of it. It turned out that to Matteo “more strong” meant thicker, not stronger in flavor. Had he just used the Italian word densa, I would have known what he wanted. Not altogether unsurprisingly, about a month later he got fired, after he broke his girlfriend’s arm. She was a timid Tuscan girl who waitressed at the restaurant. It looked like her nose had been broken too, from what I could see.
Despite my rocky introduction to constructing a tonnato, I love this sauce. It contains many of the elements of Italian cooking that are dear to my heart, olive oil to start with, and then anchovies and capers and lemon. It’s sea-tasting without being fishy. The olive oil comes through clearly. I like to use an oil that’s bright and golden and not too bitter. The sauce looks like mayonnaise, but there’s nothing too mayonnaisey about it. It’s great in its classic role, paired with thin-sliced poached veal for vitello tonnato, but it’s so good that sometimes I just whip up a bowl of it as a dip for pinzimonia, or raw vegetables. It’s especially good with fennel, celery, cucumber, and endive. It makes a nice pasta sauce, if you thin it with cooking water and maybe add pine nuts and arugula or fresh herbs like flat-leaf parsley. I’ve made stuffed eggs by mixing cooked yolks with tonnato sauce, basil, dill, and chopped cornichons. Delicious. I really like it with roasted sweet peppers, too. It reminds me of the red peppers filled with Italian tuna salad (meaning olives and capers included) that my mother occasionally made for company, before she decided it was outmoded. I’m hanging on to the flavor combination for this just-verging-on-spring salad. I hope you’ll enjoy it. You can even make vitello tonnato with it, if you want.
Tonnato Crostini with Roasted Peppers and a Spring Herb Salad
For the tonnato sauce:
2 extra-large egg yolks, at room temperature
¾ cup extra-virgin olive (one that’s not too biting, maybe Sicilian rather than Tuscan; I like Ravidá and Olio Verde)
1 5-ounce can Italian tuna, packed in olive oil (I like the Flott and Toninno brands), drained and crumbled
1 tablespoon salt-packed capers, soaked in several changes of water for ½ hour and then drained, plus a palmful of soaked capers for garnish
3 anchovy fillets, rinsed and chopped
1 tablespoon dry vermouth
About ¼ cup chicken broth
For the salad:
A handful of chives, cut into 1-inch lengths
A handful of tarragon sprigs
A handful of flat-leaf parsley leaves
About a dozen small basil leaves
A small head of frisée lettuce, torn into small pieces
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1½ tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
A big pinch of ground nutmeg
1 roasted red pepper, peeled, seeded, and cut into strips
1 baguette, cut into rounds on an angle (three slices per serving)
Put the egg yolks in the bowl of a food processor, and pulse until they’re pale yellow, about a minute or so. Start adding the olive oil in a very thin stream. When it looks like it’s catching (getting thick), start adding it a little faster. When the oil is all used up, your mayonnaise should be quite thick.
Now add the tuna, anchovies, capers, and vermouth, and pulse until everything is fairly smooth. Add enough chicken broth to loosen it all to a still thick but verging-on-pourable sauce (start with a tablespoon, which may be all you need). Season with lemon juice, salt, and black pepper, and give it a final pulse. Pour it into a bowl, and leave it at room temperature. It will set up a bit.
Place all the herbs and lettuce in a bowl.
Toast the bread rounds on both sides.
Add the lemon juice and olive oil to the salad, and season it with salt, black pepper, and the nutmeg. Toss it gently.
Divide the salad onto four plates. Spoon some tonnato sauce onto each slice of toast. Top with a few slices of roasted pepper. Place three crostini around each salad. Garnish the crostini with the extra capers, and give them all a drizzle of fresh olive oil.