Tuna confit…

Steaks and chops lend themselves beautifully to cooking for one.  One of my favorites is tuna steak, griddled or grilled–served with a side of spinach risotto  and a salad it’s a very quick, easy meal.  If there is leftover from the tuna steak, it can be used in tuna salad.  But sometimes I want to tuna salad when I don’t have leftover tuna steak.  What to do then?

I dislike the “average” can to tuna that is fishy, mushy, and buy the “solid white albacore” which is likely packed in water, but still dry since it’s cooked twice in the processing (Cook’s Illustrated, July/August 2011). I love the expensive, olive-oil packed European tuna–but my budget doesn’t permit it so I’m always looking for alternatives.

One of the things that I like about Cook’s Illustrated is the comparison of products readily available in the American supermarket–that is, after all, where I do most of my shopping. Those products are reviewed without knowledge of the manufacturer, and are not supplied by the manufacturer–so I do tend to give them some credence.

American Tuna image of canIn the July/August issue, there is a comparison of major brands of canned tuna and some newcomers on the market.  The two newcomer brands were Wild Planet Wild Albacore Tuna and American Tuna Pole Caught Wild Albacore. Both these were single-cooked products and had much less liquid and more tuna.  True there were a bit more expensive but not nearly so prohibitive as the European canned products.  There are a variety of different products available from both companies (salmon, sardines). In both cases, products are available with no salt added, or with sea salt add–such a simple ingredient list on the tuna:  albacore tuna (and maybe sea salt)–nothing else.

Image of Wild Planet albacore canSince I like tuna and use it both as a salad ingredient and as a staple in my “emergency” food supply, I wanted to check this out.  I went in search of some of both.  I found the Wild Planet albacore tuna and tried it in a simple non-mayonnaise tuna salad.  I was impressed–I’ll definitely be buying this for my tuna.  I have yet to find American Tuna, but given the review in Cook’s Illustrated, I suspect that I’ll like that one too.  I found the Wild Planet tuna at Whole Foods.  Though Kroger was listed on the retail list, the one closest to me did not have it on the shelf.  The American Tuna products are listed as being available at Whole Foods but apparently have not reached out local Whole Foods yet.  I’ll be watching.

I’ve tasted (and love) the expensive “gourmet” European tuna, but it’s not in my budget, so these products at a more reasonable price are welcome.

There is another alternative for good tuna which will approach the European canned tuna, though not really for the “emergency” food supply since that needs to be canned.  That is to make your own tuna confit.

Confit was originally a way of preserving meats–pork, goose, and duck–by cooking them very gently in their own fat, straining the fat and using it to seal the meat away from air for storage.  It produces meats that are markedly different in texture from those cooked in other ways–smooth, velvety are the adjectives that come to mind, at least in reference to duck and chicken.

I’m lucky to live close to a Harris Teeter which has high-grade tuna.  Every once in a while they will have it on a managers special, or will have smaller pieces left from cutting the tuna steaks which are sold at a reasonable price as “tuna medallions”.  Every time I see those (or steaks) on sale I get some and make my own tuna confit.  So for you tuna lovers, here is a master recipe from Fine Cooking 46, pp. 68-69, January 6, 2004.  I usually halve the recipe since I’m a solo cook.

Tuna Confit

Ingredients

3 cups good-quality olive oil (but not best); more if needed to cover the tuna during cooking
1 medium yellow onion, cut in 1/2-inch slices
2 sprigs fresh rosemary
6 sprigs fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
1 tsp. black peppercorns, coarsely cracked
Zest of 1 lemon, pared in strips
3 Tbs. coarse salt
2 lb. top-quality fresh tuna (yellowfin or ahi), cut into 1-inch-thick steaks

Preparation

  • Combine the oil, onion, herbs, peppercorns, lemon zest, and salt in a deep sauté pan or Dutch oven.  Heat to between 140° and 150°F, stirring occasionally and cook for 20 minutes to infuse the flavors of the aromatics into the oil and to pasteurize it for a long shelf life. Taste the oil; it should be slightly salty. Leave to cool and infuse for about 30 minutes; the oil will be warm.
  • Put the pan back over medium-low heat and slip the tuna into the barely warm oil. (Add as many pieces as will fit in one layer. The tuna must be covered by the oil; add more if needed.) Slowly bring the oil to 150°F again. Turn off the heat, take the pot off the heat, and let the tuna cook slowly in the warm oil. After a minute or two, test for doneness by breaking into the flake of the tuna. The fish should be cooked to medium rare-slightly pink inside and still tender to the touch. If the tuna isn’t quite done, return it to the oil for another minute. Repeat with any remaining pieces of tuna.
  • Transfer the tuna to a storage dish (I prefer glass or crockery, but an airtight plastic container will  do fine) and let it cool. Let the oil cool separately and then strain the oil over the fish, discarding the aromatics. If the tuna isn’t completely covered in  oil, add more fresh olive oil to the storage dish. If not using right away, cover the container tightly and refrigerate. The tuna will keep, covered in oil and refrigerated, for up to 2 weeks.

Nutrition information (per ounce of tuna)

  • Calories (kcal): 60
  • Fat (g): 3
    • Fat Calories (kcal) 30
    • Saturated Fat (g) 0.5
    • Monounsaturated Fat (g) 2
    • Polyunsaturated Fat (g) 0.5
  • Protein (g)  7
  • Carbohydrates (g) 0
  • Sodium (mg) 85
  • Cholesterol (mg) 15
  • Fiber (g) 0
♦♦♦

It’s easy to make this with much less than a pound of tuna–I occasionally do it with a single tuna steak in the summer when I’m really eating lots of salads and want to have them be a meal.

I use the confit to make tuna salad–but usually without mayonnaise–this is not dry so it’s not necessary to have the mayo to make it edible.  I generally pat it dry and use just a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil with herbs, and some scallions, or cucumbers, or really splurge and do a salad à la niçoise.

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Smoked salmon salad

It was  just hot enough this evening that I didn’t really want to cook–not all that hungry, but wanted something easy and light.  Rummaging in the pantry, I found that I had Chicken of the Sea wild-caught, smoked Pacific (Alaskan) salmon in the pouches, so I made a salad to have with some good crisp flatbread and fruit (melon and cherries) on the side.

Quantities are approximations–precise measurement is certainly not necessary to make something like this–use your judgement.

Ingredients: 

  • approximately 1/3 to 1/2 cup sweet onion, diced
  • approximately 1/3 to 1/2 cup cucumber (seeded if needed), diced
  • two packages (6 ounces) smoked salmon slightly broken up into chunks
  • lemon juice to taste
  • lemon zest to taste (about 1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon
  • drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil sufficient to moisten
  • fresh-ground black pepper to taste
  • salt to taste  (taste before adding any
Assembly:  combine all ingredients and mix gently.  Taste and adjust seasoning.
Variations:
  • replace extra-virgin olive oil with a dollop of sour cream and add chopped fresh dill
  • if you have leftover grilled or griddled salmon steak or fillet this is even better
  • if you are not using smoked salmon, a dash of chipotle chile powder gives a bit of smoky taste and zip
  • add minced green or red chile pepper (jalapeño, poblano or serrano) to taste.
There are all sorts of possible variations here…fix it to suit yourself.
A son goût!  

King klip

I went to Harris Teeter (affectionately known as the Teeter or HT) this morning looking for something to cook for  dinner (or supper if you prefer).  I was scoping out the fish contemplating salmon, tuna, or one of the standbys when  saw something that I was not familiar with, but look great.  The sign said it was  King klip.  My cooking curiosity being what it is, I had to bring some home with me, particularly as it  was inexpensive.

The fishmonger told me it was sort of like grouper and would do well grilled.  The heat being what it was this afternoon (my thermometer in the shade said 97 ° F ), I thought that grilling was out of the question so I opted for the cast-iron griddle –my standby.

I portioned my fish (I was a little overzealous when I said how much to cut so I have King klip filet portionedanother portion to try cooking a different way tomorrow), patted it dry, and rubbed itwith a tiny bit of olive oil.   Then I started wondering what I was going to have with this lovely fish…looking around the kitchen I saw the kaboka squash that I’d brought home from the Compare market the other day and decided that was going to be part of dinner tonight.  (I now have to figure out what to do with the rest of this thing as well, since I used only about a quarter of it.)  I attacked it with my chef’s knife, halved it, seeded half, and then took off several slices to use this evening.

I decided that I needed some green stuff with this as well, so I make a trip to a neighbor’s garden(yes, she had previously offered)  for some of  the last of the snow peas–it’s really the last–the heat has gotten to them for sure.

I decided that I’d steam sauté the squash, extravagantly with a bit of butter since the rest of the meal would be “lean”.  I used a paring knife to remove the skin and cut it into chunks so it would cook fairly quickly.

I topped and tailed my snow peas and since they were feeling the heat I put them into some cold water until I was ready to cook them.  I started the  squash in my small sauté pan with a bit of butter and about a tablespoon of water, covered tightly.  It was time to heat up the griddle.  Once it was hot, I rubbed just a light coat of oil onto the surface and put my filet on to start cooking.

Meanwhile, a quick check on the squash–not quite ready to let the water evaporate yet, but close.  Back to the fish–not quite ready to turn yet–still resisted my sliding the spatula under the edge, so it needed a bit more browning to “release” by itself.   It was smelling really good by now.  About the time it was ready to turn, the squash should be read to be uncovered to finish cooking while the water evaporated, and then to start sautéing to finish.

   The fish released and turned easily on the griddle.  I removed the lid from the squash and let the water evaporate from the pan; turned the heat down to hold while the fish was finishing.  I could see the opaque line moving toward the middle.

I put the snow peas into the pan on top of the squash and put the lid back on so that they would get just a bit of steaming .  By the time this thick filet was opaque to the center, the squash and peas were ready to eat as well.

I warmed my plate under hot water and dried it, and put my dinner on it!  Simple, and really pretty healthy–I did put just a small pat of butter on top of the fish to finish it off with the lemon.  That was about 30 to 40 minutes start to finish.  Since this was my first time with this fish, I wanted to cook it as simply as possible to get to know its basic taste.  It was a very mild fish, but it held together well during the grilling.  It’s going in my “standby” category with tilapia for a good all-purpose white fish.  (It’s line-caught, by the way; I was pleased to see that HT signs indicated how all of the fish in the case had been caught)!   It was a simple, but good, quick, healthy meal!

I think that I’ll try baking the other half of that filet in foil with some veggies.  As for the rest of that kaboka, I have a neighbor  who I’m sure will be able to make use of at least part of the other half.  (If you’re doing single-serving cooking, it’s always good to find out what your neighbors like to eat–so you can share when you get really big things like winter squash or watermelons.)  I’ll share, and still have a bit more of the squash for me.  The second portion of fish will probably be a hobo pack with some fresh tomatoes and herbs–maybe tarragon. The rest of the kaboka squash is likely going to get a “classic” treatment:  baked with some butter and brown sugar.

One of the good principles of single-serving cooking is to share the big stuff.  Most of my single (or cooking for two) neighbors always seem really please to be able to get a portion of something like the kaboka–especially if you give cooking instructions if it’s unfamiliar to them.)

Growing & cooking with French tarragon

French tarragon

French tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus)

For me, another “must have” fresh herb is  French tarragon (Artemesia dracunculus var. sativa)–now.  Until I tasted the French variety fresh, I disliked it intensely.  I simply could not understand why people would rave about it as seasoning for anything.  Dried tarragon was what I tasted first–and threw it out: it was harsh and hay-like.

Then I decided to try the fresh herb–fresh is better, right?  I trundled off to a garden center and bought a “tarragon” plant.  Tarragon is tarragon, right?

That plant grew well, had nice tall, straight stems, but the taste did nothing for me; in fact I thought it was somewhat bitter.  I did realize that sometimes the flavor of herbs varies–just as anything live and growing varies from one to another.  So being somewhat stubborn, I went to a garden center with a larger selection of herbs and I bought another plant…this one labelled as French tarragon–the botanical name was shown on the tag.  (I almost didn’t buy it because while it was nice and green, it was rather straggly looking and it was expensive (compared to other herbs and the first tarragon plant I had bought).  But–I did buy it as it was the only tarragon  there; it grew slowly and was rather weedy looking–not a pretty plant.  When I was finally able to  pick some leaves to use,  that first taste made it obvious to me that this was something different.

I did some research and discovered that there are two kinds of tarragon:  Russian and French.  The Russian can be grown from seed, is a more robust looking plant, cheaper,  and is what you are likely to get if you buy a plant that just called tarragon.  On the other hand, the French tarragon will likely be more expensive, not as sturdy looking, must be started from cuttings or root divisions as it does not produce seeds; it’s also slower growing–but, the flavor is awesome!

The lessons from this?  Don’t bother to buy dried tarragon unless you like the flavor of hay, and don’t buy a tarragon plant unless it’s labelled French tarragon (Artemesia dracunculus var. sativa).

Once you get this treasure home, you’ll need to see that it has excellent drainage and lots of sun.  This particular herb has a few idiosyncrasies:   it likes a light, richer soil than other herbs such as  thyme, sage or oregano and while it is a hardy perennial, it actually needs (requires) a cold dormant period.  It will die back to the ground in the fall, but should survive the winter if it is in well-drained soil.

[Note:  If you live where you don’t get that kind of cold in the winter you may have trouble growing French tarragon as a perennial; instead of trying the Russian you might want to try Mexican tarragon (Tagetes lucida) also know as marigold mint.  The flavor of this is slightly sweeter and more licorice-like than French tarragon, but better than the Russian tarragon.]

It may be so slow to show in the spring that you’ll think that it’s not coming back–be patient.  In an extremely hot, humid climate, I’ve found that it does well with about six or eight hours of sunlight and then some shade during the hottest part of the day.  As it is rather slow growing, it may not need dividing for three or four years.

Now that you have this in your herb garden, what can you do with it?  To harvest it for use, you can cut almost anywhere, but don’t take more than half the plant at one time–it needs enough leaves left to have strength to grow back.  By pinching tips you can keep it a bit more bushy–but it’s always going to be a kind of weedy looking herb.

It’s best used as soon as it’s harvested, but it can be stored wrapped in a damp paper towel in a sealed zipperlock plastic bag in the refrigerator for three or four days, but one of the reasons for growing it is to use it at its peak flavor–right away.

The flavor of French tarragon is described as sweet and anise-like, with minty and peppery sensations–complex!  (It contains some of the same essential oil that is found in anise.)  It’s best to add it near the end of cooking because, like some other herbs (basil, for example), it loses some flavor with heating.

This is not an herb that you reach for as your basic “go to” like thyme or oregano but it’s a classic with chicken, mild seafood, and eggs.   A simple lemon/butter sauce is delightful on seafood with a bit of tarragon added.  The sweet, anise-like flavor is also good with root veggies like carrots, beets; fresh vegetables like peas, asparagus, green beans.   You can use tarragon with fruits as well as vegetables:  melon, peaches or stone fruits.  An intriguing suggestion  I’ve seen (but not yet tried) is with citrus sorbet such as grapefruit or lime; sounds like a great summer cooler–I also  wonder about adding it with grapefruit when making aqua fresca for hot weather drinks.

It’s part of some classic herb mixes such as the French mixture called fines herbs and herbes de Provence (actual herbs used and proportions will vary with the producer).  It’s also use in the classic Béarnaise sauce, frequently served with a good steak.

You’ll find your own uses for this herb if you have it readily available.  As always, smell and taste and see what clicks with you; even though there are classic combination, there are lots of other possibilities.

A son goût!  

Griddled dinner, addendum

End of the work week for me; I’m home from teaching my last class (ended at 4 o’clock).  I made a stop at the local Harris Teeter store to try to find some “Opal” apples without success, and came home with only some milk and chocolate  (Chuao with chile pepper and some other spices).

I think that I probably set a record for the least time to get a meal for myself (and a good one, at that)–short of just dipping into the peanut butter jar.  Of course, it helps to start with great ingredients that really don’t need much done to them.

I got some beautiful wild-caught Alaskan salmon yesterday, so that was dinner this
evening, from the griddle.  The filet was beautiful–skin on,  not a single bone that I had to pluck out with tweezers, and it was cut to just the size that I needed for a single serving.  It was griddle-ready.

I heated the griddle so that I had a good “spit” when I flicked a drop of water on it.  I rubbed a bit of olive oil on both sides, sprinkled a little salt, put the salmon on the griddle skin-side up to start.  At the same time I tossed a handful of partially cooked haricots verts on with it.  It took about five minutes for it to brown nicely.  I flipped it over, skin-side down,  turned the heat down on that end of the griddle, and finished cooking it until there was just a nice darker streak  visible on the ends and took it off the griddle to rest for a few minutes, flipped the beans, and topped the salmon with some sorrel butter.  Great meal in about 15 minutes, start to sit-down.   Definitely minimal ingredients, but not minimal flavor–and it was a healthy dinner too. (Keiko preferred it without the sorrel butter, though.)

I wish there had been enough sorrel to make a sauce, but as it’s just coming up, I could not pick many leaves; what I could pick were minced and mixed with room-temperature butter (unsalted) to be plopped on top of the salmon.  The sorrel butter added a little richness, with some tartness that went well with the salmon.  Fast, easy, and a great way to cook for one person.