Small, Good Things: Nothing Fishy Here

Tonno Tonnato (center), flanked by Tonno Tonnato (left) and Tonnato Tartare (right)

Salsa Tonnato (center), flanked by Tonno Tonnato Salad (left) and Tonnato Tartare (right)

There’s something, well, fishy about Vitello Tonnato. How did this classic Italian recipe of chilled, boiled veal, smothered in a sauce made from tuna, come to be in the first place? It’s a bit of a mystery, but its reputation is well established.

A friend described her teenage son’s first experience with it as an epiphany that converted him into a culinary explorer. On the other hand, another friend said it reminds him of cat food. 

I’m not here to pass judgment. But with veal being a justified target of culinary cancellation, I am here to explore the fishier part of the equation: that surprising sauce.

Tonnato is a blender emulsion of canned tuna and olive oil, augmented by lemon juice and mayonnaise, with or without anchovies, capers or garlic. Even without the veal, it is deserving of a place at the table, especially in the summer culinary canon when most of us would prefer not to cook if we can help it.

The decana of classic Italian cuisine, Marcella Hazan, offers Maiale Tonnato (chilled slices of pork loin in tuna sauce) and further suggests turkey as a substitute; but it still requires hours in a hot kitchen.

Closer to my thinking is Joshua McFadden’s Charred Broccoli with Tonnato, Pecorino, Lemon and Chiles, which requires 5 to 7 minutes of flame but seems manageable. Absolutely on point is Melissa Clark’s Tomato Tonnato: slabs of tomatoes (coming up any day) with tonnato, basil and black pepper.

Honestly, the first and simplest batch of tonnato I made (two cans of drained tuna, ½ cup of olive oil, 2 tablespoons of lemon juice, 3 tablespoons of mayonnaise) was consumed over a couple of days as a dip for whatever crudités I could find in the refrigerator: celery, fennel, the last snap peas, radishes.

I began a vivid fantasy menu of a deconstructed Greek tuna salad with grilled red bell peppers, red onions, fennel and tomatoes, slathered in tuna sauce; or as a pan bagnat-like pressed sandwich, with tonnato as a spread-melding for layers of tomatoes, basil, greens, red onions, black olives, more olive oil and a splash of balsamic. Or how about a white bean or pasta salad, with any of those same ingredients bound together by tonnato?

The two recipes amended to the tonnato formula are further no-cook extrapolations marrying tuna to tuna and are slightly gratuitous but tasty. Again, this is all just to say that there’s still a lot to be done with this fishy little sauce, vitello or no vitello.

Salsa Tonnato
Makes about 2 cups 

Use it as a dip for crudités, a dressing for grilled vegetables, pork, seafood, or as you would mayonnaise for a dressing for cold pasta or bean salads.

  • 2 cans tuna in olive oil, drained
  • 2 to 4 oil-cured anchovy filets
  • ⅓ cup capers, rinsed and drained 
  • 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil

1. Put the tuna, anchovies, 2 tablespoons lemon juice, olive oil and half of the capers into the bowl of a small food processor and process until smooth. Add more olive oil if necessary to achieve the consistency of a stiff sauce.

2. Transfer tonnato into a bowl. Chop the remaining capers roughly and add to the bowl along with the mayonnaise and stir to incorporate. Cover and refrigerate. Tonnato will keep for up to a week.

Tonno Tonnato Tartare
Serves 2 to 4

  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
  • 1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • ½ teaspoon Tabasco sauce
  • 2 tablespoons tonnato
  • 1 scallion, white and green parts minced fine
  • 6 ounces fresh sushi-quality tuna (loin), cut
  • 1 small, ripe Hass avocado, cut into ¼-inch dice

1. In a measuring cup, whisk together olive oil, lemon zest, lemon juice, Tabasco and tonnato. To prepare the tuna, wrap it in plastic wrap and rest it in the freezer for 30 to 45 minutes, before dicing into ¼-inch pieces. Place tuna in a mixing bowl and proceed with the recipe.

2. Pour tonnato mixture over the tuna; add scallions and mix well. Add avocado and gently mix into the tuna. Cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour for flavors to meld. Serve on crackers or small toasts. 

Tonno Tonnato Salad
Makes about 2 cups

  • 2 cans oil-packed tuna, drained
  • ¼ cup tonnato
  • 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • 1 stalk celery, diced fine
  • 2 tablespoons shallot, minced
  • 1 teaspoon pickle relish or gherkins, diced small
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil leaves
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper

In a medium bowl, combine tuna, tonnato, mustard, celery, pickles, shallot and basil. Mix gently to combine; add salt and pepper to taste. Refrigerate, covered, for up to 3 days. Make a sandwich on some crusty bread with arugula and a couple slices of a great summer tomato, a drizzle of olive oil, salt and pepper.

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