New life aquatic

It's the end of the line for tired tuna dishes. Mark Hix tries a fresh approach instead
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Indy Lifestyle Online

The words that once sprang to mind when we thought of tuna were John West. These cans of skipjack lurked in the cupboard, waiting to be mixed with mayonnaise or tossed in with some cooked pasta, canned sweetcorn and baked in the oven in a gooey cheese sauce.

The words that once sprang to mind when we thought of tuna were John West. These cans of skipjack lurked in the cupboard, waiting to be mixed with mayonnaise or tossed in with some cooked pasta, canned sweetcorn and baked in the oven in a gooey cheese sauce.

I didn't see a piece of fresh tuna until I was well into my twenties, and it took a while for me to distinguish between bigeye, bluefin, yellowfin or albacore. Buying fresh tuna shouldn't be undertaken lightly. You need to trust your fishmonger, but always look for bright red, almost maroon flesh which is slightly oily to the touch. When it's past its best it goes a rusty off-red colour and has a diesel-slick finish to it. If you're unlucky enough to eat tuna in this state you are likely to get a tingling on your tongue where the blood has turned sour. If you don't have a fishmonger you trust to sell sushi-quality tuna, try www.thefishsociety.co.uk.

On my first trip to Tokyo, about four years ago, I was drawn to the city's famous fish market, the best in the world, Tsukiji. It took two days just to get around the market without missing anything. Many of the fish, not just the shellfish but the swimming varieties like turbot and sole and many I'd never seen before, are actually alive.

The most amazing sight, though, was an area the size of a football pitch, laden with thousands of frozen and fresh, torpedo-like tuna. They were lined up and being examined by expert restaurateurs using instruments like apple corers to test the flesh near the tail for fat content and quality.

Even when they've decided which fish they're happy with, the fish are still auctioned to the highest bidder. That's why Japanese food is pricey.

I spent New Year in Margate doing some serious tuna fishing on a reef a few miles offshore. That's Margate in South Africa, by the way. I boarded armed with a light spinning reel and a fly rod and got mad looks from the skipper and crew. I had great sport landing 3-4kilo yellowfin tunas, so we had enough fish to feed 15 for dinner for New Year's Eve supper and loads to spare for the staff and their families.

I made sushi, sashimi, lightly seared tataki (see the recipe below) and toro tartare (cut from the fatty belly). The best bit of flesh came from the tuna collars (behind the head), marinaded in soy, ginger and garlic and cooked on the barbecue until crisp. I've eaten this many times in Japanese restaurants and it's the best part of the fish for cooking, but unfortunately here it normally goes in the bin.

I laid out the whole feast, caught only that morning, on banana leaves from the garden and dotted round some dishes of soy, wasabi and little vegetable salads.

That was a rare chance to eat fresh tuna, and I wouldn't rule out some of the best tins. Spanish canned tuna, and mojama, air-dried tuna, are both available from Brindisa, at Borough Market, London SE1, and Exmouth Market, London EC1. Bottarga - dried, cured tuna roe - is available mail order at www.vallebona.co.uk. If you can find smoked tuna it's delicious with a finely shredded fennel salad.

Tataki of tuna with carrot salad

Serves 4 as a starter

With tataki, although the tuna is barely cooked, it takes on quite a different identity to raw fish, and can be served with accompaniments you wouldn't normally have with a traditional sashimi. You see beef and tuna tataki on restaurant menus in Japanese restaurants but it's traditionally a peasant dish and generally served at home. Lucky peasants, I say.

400g sashimi-quality middle-cut tuna, fully trimmed and skin removed
1tbsp sweet or thick soy sauce, plus some extra for serving
2tsp sesame oil
2 large carrots, peeled and finely shredded on a mandolin or by hand
1 spring onion, trimmed and finely diced
A small piece of root ginger (about 10g), scraped and finely chopped or grated
1 tbsp rice wine vinegar
1 tbsp chopped coriander
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Cut the piece of tuna lengthways into 4, so that you end up with kind of rough cylinder shapes. Roll the pieces in the soy sauce, removing any excess. Heat the sesame oil in a thick-bottomed frying pan until almost smoking then cook the tuna for literally 10 seconds on each side and remove from the pan. Mix the carrots with the spring onion, ginger, rice vinegar and coriander and season. Arrange the carrots on serving dishes then cut each piece of tuna into 4 or 5 slices with a sharp knife. Arrange the tuna on the carrots and serve with extra soy sauce.

Tuna salad with white beans and herbs

Serves 4 as a starter or small main course

Canned tuna varies massively and you generally get what you pay for. The Spanish seem to have the knack of preserving tuna and even make a good job of designing the tins. I have added mojama, Spanish air-dried tuna, which is somewhere between beef jerky and bresaola in texture. You don't need much of it and all you have to do is slice it thinly.

1 x 200g can of good quality tuna in olive oil, drained and oil reserved
A handful of picked herbs like flat parsley, chervil, chives and basil, washed and dried
60-70g small salad leaves, like red chard, baby spinach, land cress, small radicchio or treviso, washed and dried
70-80g cooked small white beans (I used Spanish arrocina but risini, haricot de coco or cannellini would do), drained and washed if canned
20-30g mojama (optional), thinly sliced

for the dressing

2tbsp good quality white wine vinegar
2 tsp Dijon mustard
8tbsp extra virgin olive oil (including what was drained from the tuna can)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Make the dressing by whisking all the ingredients together and seasoning, then mix with half the beans. To assemble the salad, toss the leaves in the rest of the dressing and season, then arrange on plates and spoon over the beans, mixing them into the leaves a little. Scatter flakes of tuna on top with the slices of mojama (optional);scatter the herbs over.

Grilled tuna with braised celery

Serves 4 as a main course

There is some great leafy celery from Italy. It knocks the spots off our own stuff, with the leaves chopped off to make it look tidier. I just don't get it. If you're buying celery, surely you want it leaves and all. It would be like buying a chicken and finding some cle0ver sod has taken the legs off. This is a sort of caponata (the sweet and sour Italian celery and aubergine stew) and makes good use of the leaves that get lost on the way to the supermarket.

4 tuna steaks, weighing about 160g each and 11/2-2cm thick
Vegetable oil for brushing
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

for the braised celery

1 medium onion, peeled and cut into rough 1cm dice
1 clove of garlic, peeled and crushed
1/2tsp chopped oregano or thyme leaves
4tbsp olive oil
1 head of leafy celery
2tsp tomato purée
1tbsp white wine vinegar
1tbsp large capers
6 green olives, stoned and quartered
250ml vegetable stock
1tbsp chopped celery leaves

Chop the root off the celery to loosen the sticks and leaves. Trim all the leaves off and wash and dry them.

Take 4-5 stalks and peel them if they are stringy, then cut them down the middle and chop into rough 1cm cubes. Gently cook the onion, garlic and oregano in the olive oil for 2-3 minutes until soft, stirring every so often. Add the celery, vinegar, tomato purée and stock, season and bring to the boil.

Simmer for 10 minutes with a lid on then remove the lid and add the capers, olives and chopped celery leaf and simmer until most of the liquid has evaporated. Keep warm with a lid on.

Heat a ribbed griddle pan or heavy frying pan, season and lightly brush the tuna steaks with the oil and cook for 1 minute on each side for rare and 2 minutes for medium-rare. To serve, mix the olive oil and vinegar together and toss with the celery leaves. Spoon the braised celery on to plates, and place the tuna on top with a pile of the rest of the unchopped leaves on the side.

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