The sun is high on the zenith, the days are lasting longer, and there’s sand in the car. In addition to wearing lots of linen clothing and hitting rooftops for aperitivo, Italians normally react to the heat of summer by putting on the table an array of refreshing cold dishes. Besides hunting down the best iced coffee and making passata, Italian summer menus always include creative pasta and rice salads, raw fish and summer cheeses, plus a fine assortment of cold vegetarian dishes featuring ripe summer produce.
Today however, I’m in the mood for vitello tonnato.
Born in Piemonte, vitello tonnato is somewhat of an oddity, with origins in the early 18th century. A chilled entrée that combines veal meat and tuna fish. Posh surf ‘n’ turf, Italian style.
As I type the words ‘veal’ and ‘tuna’ in the same sentence, I realize what I’m headed for. Trouble.
I am an omnivore. And I am Italian. Veal and tuna, be they together in this dish or used separately, are staples in my kitchen. Veal meat is very much part of the Italian diet. We eat veal, and we try our hardest to source it from farmers or butchers we know and that make sure that the animals were raised sustainably, and were killed with gratitude and grace. Being faithful to my pledge to always write about authentic Italian dishes, I felt I could not overlook a veal dish.
Equally demonized tuna is still angled with “tonnare,” a brutal death chamber-style fishing technique in which porpoises and other marine creatures often get caught by mistake. I’m not a defender of the practice, I cringe at the mere idea. Like with veal I am careful about where and from whom I purchase canned tuna, looking out for mercury levels, proper canning practices, preservatives and other important factors. As a consumer it’s my right and my duty.
My intent with sharing this vitello tonnato recipe is the usual one: entice your palates, share my family’s recipes and shed a little light on Italian eating habits. My intent is never to offend, disgust or perturb. I hope you enjoy making and eating this dish as much as I do. Described below is my mother’s recipe for fantastic, bizarre and totally delicious “vitel tonné” as she used to call it.
For the veal
1 deboned veal rump (around 1 kg / 2.2 lb), trussed with kitchen twine
3 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
5 large white onions, finely sliced
For the broth
One carrot, cut into sections
A celery rib, cut into sections
One small white onion, peeled and quartered
A bay leaf
1 tsp. black peppercorns
3 cups cold water
1/2 cup white wine
For the tuna sauce
150 g (5 oz) good quality oil-packed tuna, drained of excess canning oil
2 egg yolks, hard-boiled
1 heaped tbsp. capers (previously soaked in water) + more for garnish
Some make vitello tonnato with mayonnaise, but this recipe doesn’t call for it.
Make the vegetable broth: start in a cold saucepan adding water, carrot, celery, quartered onion, bay leaf, peppercorns and a pinch of salt. Boil for about 40 minutes. Strain and reserve the liquid to use in the following steps.
Sear the veal in a large stock pot or Dutch oven with the olive oil until evenly browned. Add the sliced onions and caramelize for 5-7 minutes, scraping any brown bits from the bottom of the pot. Deglaze the pot with wine. Once the wine has fully evaporated, pour in enough broth to cover meat and onions. Braise slowly on medium-low for approximately 55 minutes. This will cook the meat and reduce the onions to a dense gravy-like texture. You may need to add a few more ladles of broth as it evaporates during cooking. If you run out of broth, use some hot water.
Take the meat out of the pot and let it cool on a carving board with a juice channel.
To make the sauce, blend together the tuna, hard-boiled egg yolks, and a handful of rinsed capers (save a dozen for garnish). To the blender, add the onion gravy and any meat juices to obtain a velvety cream. If the sauce is too thick to blend, loosen it with some of the remaining broth or water. Taste to check seasoning, but the capers and tuna should make up for the lack of salt. Chill the sauce.
Once the veal has cooled completely, carve it across the grain, as thinly as you can. Arrange the slices on a large platter in a single layer. Slather the chilled tuna sauce to cover the sliced meat completely. Finally, garnish with the reserved capers and chill before serving. When ready to bring to the table, from the refrigerator you can also produce a frosty bottle of Dolcetto di Dogliani, and thus become fully
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