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I Like Tuna Cooked,
Not Raw

by David Pasternack
I started cooking when I was 18, and my first job was in a fish restaurant on Long Island. I grew up on the South Shore, and I still live there and go fishing there. Over the years, I had lots of French training, but I wanted to do fish. Joe Bastianich and Mario Batali gave me the chance when they opened Esca in Manhattan.

The biggest lesson I've learned working in an Italian restaurant is to keep things simple. Take tuna, for example. I do not serve rare seared tuna, though it is something that almost every chef has been doing. I cook tuna slowly in olive oil and then let it marinate as it cools. It's thoroughly cooked, but if you do it the right way, it's rich enough to melt in your mouth. It's the way they eat tuna in Italy. The American culture does not understand this. No one eats rare tuna in Italy.

I like yellowfin or albacore tuna the best, and I use the belly cut because it's the fattest. In some shops you can buy canned tuna that's labeled ventresca. That's the belly cut. Regular tuna is from the shoulder. I get the whole fish without the head delivered to the restaurant. Ninety pounds. The fish are bled and dressed at sea. Fresh tuna that's handled properly will have no veins or blood lines.

No matter how I plan to serve the tuna, I first cut it in chunks and season it with sea salt and pepper. If you just season your oil, it doesn't penetrate the fish. I cover the tuna with oil in a pot, add two cloves of garlic, bring up the heat and then let it barely simmer for 10 minutes. I add bay leaves and lemon thyme. Regular thyme and lemon zest are a good substitute. Then I let it sit for at least an hour.

It's like making a pot roast: if you make it on Monday and wait until Wednesday to eat it, it will only get better. The Italians have done tuna that way for 1,000 years. They'd catch the tuna when it was running in the Strait of Messina and preserve it in oil.

I often put the cooked tuna in oil and seal it in canning jars, but you can refrigerate it for a few days. Just bring it to room temperature before you use it. You can even serve it warm, chunks of it over spaghetti with black olives and some of the oil. Or with a white bean salad. Or over ripe tomatoes. But it's no good piping hot or ice cold.

I like to mix it in a salad with romano beans, the flat green beans that are so meaty, like filet mignon. They're better than regular green beans but you can use them if you can't find the romanos. I cook the beans in lots of salted water until they're tender. I don't like those crunchy little French beans. I've noticed that even in France they're now cooking vegetables until they're tender. And in Italy the vegetables are always well-cooked.

With the beans and the tuna I like some potatoes, fingerlings that aren't too starchy. Instead of salad greens I add parsley leaves and lovage. Lovage has a celery taste, a cooling flavor with a touch of bitterness. If you can't find it, use the inner leaves from a bunch of celery.

I also put salted anchovies in the salad. I soak them first to get rid of some of the salt, but you need something salty. Like the anchovies. Or some nice Calabrese olives with their anise flavor. Or big capers. I toss everything with a dressing made from Italian red wine vinegar, some extra virgin olive oil and some of the oil from the tuna. The dressing has to be fairly acidic: two to one, oil to vinegar, instead of three to one.

I like to keep the tuna chunky, not break it up too much. It's a rustic dish, and you want to serve it looking rustic. Toss it like a salad on a big platter. A glass of wine, some crusty bread and the salad are all you need for lunch on a hot day.

It hasn't been hard for me to feel right at home cooking Italian. My wife is Italian. Most people who meet me think I'm Italian, even though my family is Russian and English. I even once said, "we Italians" on television. My father never let me forget it.


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