Raw or rare fresh tuna, when of high quality and prepared by cooks who know what they’re doing, is a lovely thing to eat — silky on the tongue and with more flavor than some other raw fishes. In restaurants and even at home, many of us have grown used to eating tuna that way except when we open a can for a sandwich or salad.
But let’s not forget that cooked-through tuna is the norm in many places where the fish is a local catch: the Mediterranean region to give one extensive example. The key is to do what, say, Sicilian cooks do and cut the tuna thin — not into thick slabs that dry out by the time they’re done — and then cook the slices quickly and not too much, so that they are moist and tender and full of flavor. I was going to say “worlds more flavorful than any sashimi you’ve ever eaten,” but that kind of sweeping statement doesn’t do anyone any good. And, even when raw, the fattier grades of tuna belly are pretty amazing.
But today I’m not talking about precious o-toro; I’m thinking of super-fresh “loin,” the kind of thing you grill or pan-fry like a steak. Our farmers market fish stand recently had beautiful slices of locally caught yellowfin, and I bought one, an inch thick and weighing half a pound. Then I walked through the market; plausible tomatoes had begun to appear, if not the great ones that will materialize later in the summer. That made me think of southern Europe, and I remembered that a few olives (eight, as it turned out) remained in a container at home. That, plus some herbs, pretty much defined the center of the dinner plate. (As to the rest of the plate, I got some small artichokes from the one vendor who takes the trouble to grow them. I trimmed and cooked them with four spring onions, sliced, a clove of garlic, thyme, white wine and olive oil, leaving enough over for the next day.)
The tuna needed no trimming, but I cut it into two 1/2-inch slices — four ounces each, quite enough for nice portions with an intense sauce.
I bought enough of those okay-but-not-great tomatoes to make three cups of quick sauce — a clove of garlic sweated for a couple of minutes in lots of olive oil, then the peeled tomatoes, diced, and plenty of salt; simmer for 20 minutes. It wasn’t thick, but it tasted fresh and good. The tuna dish, though, could have been made with plain diced tomatoes — or indeed canned ones.
All I did at dinnertime was heat olive oil in a skillet over high heat, lay in the salted and peppered tuna slices and cook them for half a minute on the first side; they were lightly colored and moist, not seared and dry. I turned them over, then a moment later added a 1/2 cup of dry white wine; this reduced quickly to a couple of tablespoons, and I immediately lowered the heat to medium-high and added 2/3 cup of my quick tomato sauce (a like amount of freshly diced tomato plus a clove of garlic and some extra olive oil would have been just fine).
By the time this came to a boil the fish was done — barely cooked through — and I put the slices on our dinner plates. To the tomato mixture in the pan, I added the olives, which I’d previously pitted and torn in half. This cooked for another 20 seconds or so (with fresh tomatoes it might have taken a little longer). Finally, I stirred in a good handful of chopped herbs — parsley and mint in this case — and topped each tuna “minute steak” with the mixture.
There was lots of solid matter on top of the fish, with plenty of tomato-olive-wine-fish juices surrounding it. If I had to assign a provenance to the dish, I’d say it tasted Sicilian, but the fact is, it could have come from anywhere on the olive-tomato coast — a nice place to be in summertime, and not somewhere you’re likely to feel like eating your tuna raw as you sip your chilled white wine.