Thursday, May 22, 2008

Eating Delicious Tuna

Believe it or not, the Spanish, French, and Italians are very fond of canned tuna. However, they like solid chunks of tuna packed in olive oil. I know that everyone seems to be watching their fat intake, but the water packed tuna seems to disintegrates into mushy little shards in the can. Olive oil preserves and even adds greater nuance to the flavor as it ages.

Tuna Brunch Salad


The tuna is caught, quickly killed, gutted, and either processed, or flash frozen for later processing. At the packing plant it is then butchered, cooked in either water, olive oil, or both, and then packed with olive oil in cans or jars. A number of small fisherman/packers in California and the Pacific Northwest have recently begun to follow this Mediterranean practice with great success.
Four tuna species make up the bulk of canned tuna offerings. The most prevalent and least costly are the yellow fin and the big eye, two species that resemble one another in the water, in the can, and on the plate. The yellow fin is the more plentiful of the two, and it is mainly taken off the coast of Spain, The Azores, and in the Western Mediterranean. The big eye sometimes swims along with its look-alike cousin the yellow fin. However, it tends to dive deeper, and so it has a higher fat content resulting in a slightly richer tasting fish. When cooked yellow fin meat tends to have a very light yellow to light brown color. The meat is quite firm, and while rich in flavor it is not overpoweringly "fishy." The big eye has similar characteristics in the can, but usually leans to light brown in color. Because it is often difficult to tell them apart, they are both processed together, and sold simply as "Tuna," "Atun Claro" in Spain and "Tonno" in Italy.
The prized catch for Atlantic fishing boats is the albacore tuna, or "Bonito del Norte" as they call it in Spain. The prime ground for this delicious fish with the pale white meat is off Spain's north coast. Its firm white meat is cooked in water and packed in oil. While much of it is put in cans, larger fillets are often packed in clear glass jars that have a greater eye appeal than the most colorful labels. Albacore has the most delicate flavor of all the canned tunas.
A number of Pacific Northwest fishermen have recently begun packing some of their catch in olive oil with a twist on the European procedures - their other option is packing au natural and just relying on the juices thrown off by the fish during cooking. The Europeans cook the tuna first and then pack it in olive oil, usually second press oil. Here in the Pacific Northwest they pack the raw tuna with extra virgin olive oil and then cook it in the can. Cooking it in the can locks in all the natural liquids present in the tuna and this means more tuna flavor. Starting out with extra virgin olive oil also means more flavor in the can - the oil/liquid in the can is so unbelievably flavorful that you won't want to pour it off into the sink. It makes the perfect base for a salad dressing. The result is an Albacore tuna that tastes meatier than the European counterparts.
What is my favorite tuna? Like most high quality ingredients that have a range of flavor and texture, it depends on what I'm going to do with the tuna. If I just have time to pop open a can and eat it all by its lonesome, I would go for a smallish can of Bonito del Norte or Papa George's Albacore in California Olive Oil so that I could savor the lighter flavors. A small can would also work as a part of a salad for one. If I was entertaining and wanted a spectacular presentation, larger Bonito del Norte loin pieces would create a memorable Salad Ni├žoise. The flavor of this fish also goes very well with salad greens and light vinaigrettes. For dishes that have any heat applied I would use the Atun from As do Mar. The darker meat and more robust flavor of this fish is also perfect for a Mediterranean style tuna sandwich: a half a can of Atun thoroughly flaked in a bowl with its oil and maybe a light squeeze of lemon, two slices of rustic bread, generously doused with some extra virgin olive oil, and some fresh arugula leaves.
For more information about buying canned tuna visit the ChefShop.com tuna aisle. For more tuna recipes and serving suggestions, go to ChefShop.com's recipe archive page and search on "tuna".
Eliza Ward is the co-founder of ChefShop.com. ChefShop.com is a family-owned, online gourmet food retailer focused on supporting and promoting small food producers who value sustainability and go to exceptional lengths to create top-quality products. In our ever-more mechanized world, it's ChefShop.com's pleasure to bring you a little closer to the artisans who dedicate their lives to preserving food traditions.