On a trip to France several years ago, I had a taste of tuna from a can that changed my life. Well, maybe I won’t go that far, but it certainly changed the way I cook tuna. I actually wanted the tuna can as a souvenir — a lovely vibrant yellow with a lavish graphic of an olive branch, labeled Thon à l’huile d ‘olive vièrge extra (tuna in extra-virgin olive oil). Already, that sounded a whole lot better than the redundantly named American lunchbox standard “tuna fish.” But I had no idea just how different this canned tuna would be. The can of tuna from Brittany contained sumptuous slices of delicately flavored fish, satin-textured and surrounded by good, fruity olive oil. This was no ordinary tuna fish. What it was, I discovered a few years later, was tuna confit. And to my delight, I could make it at home.
Confit (pronounced kohn-fee) traditionally refers to the preserving of seasoned pork, duck, or goose by slowly poaching the meat in its own fat and then storing it in the strained rendered cooking fat. With a bit of culinary license, this method lends itself wonderfully to fresh tuna. While tuna lacks enough of its own fat to render, olive oil provides the perfect cooking and storing medium.
Take your time and check the temperature
The key to cooking the tuna to velvety perfection is patience. If you let the oil become too hot, the flesh of the fish will seize, and the result will be one tough tuna. I sometimes turn the heat off and on again under the oil to regulate the temperature — you definitely need to pay attention and use a thermometer. To be really certain of the temperature, you should check your thermometer first by putting it in boiling water to be sure it reads 212°F (unless of course you’re at very high elevations; at 5,000 feet above sea level, for instance, it should read 203°F).
A note on the following recipes that I’ve designed around the tuna confit: They also taste great with grilled fresh tuna or even plain old tuna in a can. For canned tuna, I prefer a light tuna in oil (as opposed to the white or albacore, or tuna in water, which I find so bland and dry). Progresso sells a good one, or go to www.zingermans.com for an excellent “Ventresca” tuna from Spain. And of course, if you’re in Brittany, look for the yellow label….