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January 27, 2009

Tuna, candied and dried

Wow!  Thanks for all the kind wishes and sweet emails with your remedies for kicking this cold/flu.  I finally started to feel human again just this morning, and my joy was quadrupled times infinity when I shuffled downstairs to let the dog out and saw the comforting, quiet blanket of awesomeness that only snow can bring.  Snow!!  Wahoooooooo!!!!!

While most of the time my inner 9-year old comes out when someone farts or I'm reminded I went to summer camp with a girl whose last name was Butt, I also get as giddy as a schoolgirl when it snows.  I turn into Lorelai Gilmore.  Snow is like this magical pause button that makes me physically stop what I'm doing or had planned to do, and just stare out the window for hours on end, grinning from ear to ear.  I don't just walk from room to room, I do a little yay-it's-snowing jig.  I even sometimes catch myself humming a little yay-it's-snowing song.  I put on a cute sweater and cute socks and act like such a dorkus malorkus, it's a wonder I haven't been committed.  And, as I sit here typing this, I just realized I actually PUT ON LIPSTICK THIS MORNING, even though I have no plans to leave the house.  It's like snow is Michael Bloomberg or something.

And, do you know what else I love about this weather?  Food tastes better when it snows.  Oatmeal tastes warmer and creamier.  Hot chocolate tastes richer.  Coffee smells better.  Beef shortrib soup, crispy polenta, and a glass of wine make for a perfect lunch.  And in the evening?  Nothing better than a simmering pot of lamb and veal bolognese.

In wintertime, some people await with bated breath the joys of Thanksgiving and Christmas or New Year's Eve.  Me?  While those holidays are lovely, there's something much more magical about the first real snowfall of the season, and today, we finally got it.

That said, I'm sure it'll turn into sleet and freezing rain before too long, but that's okay.  Just give me a few hours of snow, and I feel like I can conquer the world.

*  *  *  *  *

Now, on to the Tuna, candied and dried:

Growing up, the only tuna I ate -- and I ate it begrudgingly, at best -- was tuna from a can, mixed with lots and lots of mayonnaise (no onions or celery for me, because tuna shouldn't crunch, ew), or mixed in with noodles and some sort of can of Campbell's Soup in a tuna-noodle casserole.  It's not like my little Amish hometown was flush with fresh-caught tuna in the 1970s, so for many years tuna was on my Bllleeaaarrgggghhh List (along with liver, Brussels sprouts, and pork chops -- all things I now love).  I couldn't stand the smell of tuna -- it was just so fishy and salty and smelled like an elementary school bathroom -- but I suffered through it because it's what angst-y pre-adolescents do.

In high school, my outlook on tuna changed.  Why?  Because I discovered the tuna melt.  I mean, really -- what can't toast and melted cheese make better?  So, I evolved into at least appreciating, if not fully embracing, tuna salad on toast with melted cheese on top.

In college, I survived on tuna melts, turkey sandwiches, macaroni and cheese, french fries, Chinese food, and pizza.  And beer.  And ice cream.  And Cap'n Crunch.  And also more beer.  But, tuna was cheap (still from the can, mind you), and, again, on toast with cheese much more palatable.  Still didn't love it, but it didn't make me gag anymore.  Progress!

It wasn't until I was in my early 20s that I actually began noticing fresh, not-from-the-can tuna on restaurant menus.  I don't remember the first time I tried it -- I know it was when someone else ordered it, though, and I hesitantly tried a bite just to be polite -- but I do remember thinking, WHAT KIND OF FOOL DO YOU TAKE ME FOR, THIS CAN'T BE TUNA because it actually tasted really good and nothing like tuna I'd had before.

Since then, I've ordered tuna every now and again in restaurants and sushi joints, but it's not something I get all clappy and ga-ga over when I see it on a menu.  I have to be in the mood for it.  And, it has to be prepared with other flavors that make sense.  And even then, it has to sound better than everything else on the menu (which rarely is the case).  So that's to say, I guess, that although I now like tuna, I still don't crave it or eat a lot of it.  I rarely prepare it at home, because there are other types of fish I prefer.  However, lately, I've been seeing some gorgeous tuna in the fish case at BlackSalt, so I was actually in a good headspace about making this dish.  The ingredients all made sense to me, and everything seemed like it would dovetail really nicely and produce a really flavorful end result.

To begin, in a medium saucepan I combined the water, sugar, soy sauce, fish sauce, fresh ginger, coriander seed, fresh lemongrass, chilis, and vinegar and brought it to a simmer.  Once it had simmered for a minute or so, I turned off the flame and let it steep for 30 minutes:


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Then, I added the lime juice, lime zest (by the way, 5g of lime zest = the zest of two limes), and ginger juice.  Let me take a minute here to tell you about some adjustments I made.  I didn't include cilantro, because I'm one of those freaks for whom cilantro tastes like soap.  So, I don't cook with it and I don't eat it.  It's a shame, because I know it's intended to add a layer of flavor that only brings out the good in every other ingredient, but for me it just makes the whole thing taste like Palmolive.  So, no cilantro.  I also reduced the amount of sugar by 50 grams, because instead of pure ginger juice, I used pineapple-ginger juice, which I figured would be sweeter than just regular ginger juice.  Let's see, what else...  Oh, those long green chilis you see in the photo aren't Thai chilis, they're Vietnamese.  I think that's everything. Yeah, that's it.

This marinade smelled amazing.  Really, really amazing.  I'm not a fan of overly fragrant soaps or perfumes, but if someone could make a soap or shampoo that smelled like this marinade, I'd be a happy girl.  It wasn't overpowering, and every scent was subtle, but present and accounted for.  Just lovely.

Once the marinade had cooled to room temperature (which took about 90 minutes), I sliced the tuna into long, thin strips and put them in the marinade for two hours.


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(I think raw tuna is just so pretty.)


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After being in the marinade for two hours, I removed the tuna strips, rinsed them in cold water, patted them dry, then put them on a Silpat-lined baking sheet and put them in a 130-degree oven for about two hours.


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I then strained the marinade into a medium sauce pan and reduced it over medium heat until it was a glaze.  This step made me fall in love with this scent even more, and I actually spent a considerable amount of time online researching how to turn food into bath products.  Paging Tyler Durden...


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Here's what the tuna strips looked like after their drying time in the oven.  The book says they should be dry, but pliable, which they were. 


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I let the tuna come to room temperature while I made the candied grapefruit zest and sesame-chili mixture.

Using a vegetable peeler, I removed the zest from a grapefruit, then went back over the inside of it with a paring knife to make sure I'd removed all of the pith.

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I cut it into 5x1/16" strips and let them steep and cool in the simple syrup I'd just made.


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Next, I made the sesame-chili mixture, which was super-easy to do.  I mixed white and black sesame seeds with some red chili flakes and toasted them in a small sauté pan.  If I were ever to do a stage at Alinea, this is the job I'd want.  Making this combo every night.  Why?  Because it's probably the only thing anyone there could trust me to do (I know my boundaries).  And, it smells good.  Again, soap or some hand cream that smells like this would be a great stocking stuffer..... just sayin'.


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I brushed the tuna strips with the glaze, then sprinkled the sesame-chili mixture on them.

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I wrapped each one with a strip of candied grapefruit zest, placed a thin slice of fresh ginger on each one, and put them on a platter.  You'll see the lack of micro lemongrass.  Couldn't find it anywhere, and regular lemongrass was too fiber-y to use, so I had to forgo that ingredient.


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The flavors burst wide open across our palates and up into our sinuses as we took that first bite, but then the more we chewed... and chewed and chewed and chewed (texture alert!), the less we liked it.  The stringy, almost-tough texture of the tuna was so unexpected and weird that it really bummed me out.  I ate a second one just to be sure, and came to the same conclusion.  In the first bite, the flavors were exquisite: the punch of the ginger, with the heat and warmth of the sesame seed mix, the candied grapefruit peel, the roundness and full-bodied glaze, even the tuna-y-ness of the tuna.... all of it was just gorgeous together.

But it was the texture of the tuna as I chewed that left me hangin'.  Maybe my strips were too thick?  Maybe it drying it in the oven instead of using a dehydrator was the problem?  I don't know.  All I know is, I would've much rather seared and lightly grilled a tuna steak, glazed it with the glaze, crusted it with the sesame-chili mix, and done a fine dice of the candied grapefruit zest as garnish on top.  THAT would've been a hit.  And, it's how I'll make tuna here at home, for sure. Because I can't recommend the flavors of this dish highly enough.  They're phenomenal, and if you like tuna and have access to good, fresh tuna you can make at home, then use all the other elements of this dish to pull off an amazing dinner.

But, tuna jerky?

Not so much.

(Note: For those who might ask in the comments, I made this dish a few days before I got sick, so it's not a matter of having a cold that made this not the homerun I hoped it could be.)

Up Next: Sardine, niçoise olive, dried tomato, arugula

Resources: Tuna from BlackSalt, pineapple-ginger juice from the TPSS Co-op, all other ingredients from H Mart in Wheaton, MD.

Music to Cook By: School of Seven Bells; Alpinisms.  I first heard these guys on a KCRW podcast, and was drawn to the song Half Asleep.  I have a hard time describing their sound without saying that it sounds like an LA club act that could just as easily play the 930 Club.  They're a little gimmicky-sounding, and I bet when they talk they speak with that annoying art-school/hipster voice, but I also think they're the kind of band you fall in love with and listen to for a year or so, then hear their music in a movie and think, "hey, I knew about them first!"  Know what I mean?

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These look fabulous to me - Tuna Jerkey! But I too am a texture person and while chewy doesn't totally bother me, squishy and grainy can totally ruin a dish as far as I'm concerned.

Hmm, that is a good idea you had at the end there. The texture seems like it would bum me out too. I really love seared tuna, the play of textures and temperatures. And that piece you had was so lovely, it's a shame the texture didn't work out. :\

It sounds like a fine dish with tuna in its original, juicy glory, and I think I will have to give it a try. Raw tuna is indeed gorgeous! Although a tuna melt ain't half bad, either.

Enjoy the snow -- you can have some of ours, another 8-12" set for tomorrow. If Lorelai *really* lived in New England instead of Hollywood utopia, she might have understood how it loses its charm after it's piled up, with ice, for 8 weeks or more amidst frequent Arctic lows. Ack.

Carol, your honesty knows no bounds. I like that about you. Sorry this dish didn't work out for you texture-wise. Maybe a dehydrator is the answer, as you said. I've made ahi jerky before using a dehydrator and I had to slice it super thin in order to chew it. And even then, it's like gum.

Tuna gum - not a bad idea, really.

I must admit, that for me while toast and cheese is one of my favorite things, and I'm basically OK with tuna, canned or not, in certain contexts, the concept of putting them together has always completely grossed me out. For me, cheese and fish should never meet. The only exception I can think of is anchovies. But otherwise... shudder.

::bumps to a fellow "cilantro tastes like palmolive" gal::

well crap. looks like i'm going to have to procure this cookbook just for this marinade. it sounds fabulous, esp the way you described the dish in the end.

I love spicy and exotic smells in soaps and shampoos! I make my own lotions, soaps, lip balm, etc. and now I really want to work in some of these scents. However, I do also see fish sauce in there... and I hope that smell didn't come out too strongly. I have a vision of fishy hair...

Glad that you are feeling better. My dog Wilson and I are also loving this snow today. I have the same reaction to cilantro. If it's in a dish, it just ruins it for me. Nasty stuff. Too bad about the tuna. It looked so beautiful and I can almost smell that marinade. Perhaps you should take pity on your faithful readers and just tell us how to make that one little thing ...?

I agree with Hollerhither on the raw tuna idea.

His name is Robert Paulson.
His name is Robert Paulson.
His name is Robert Paulson.

I like the idea of using the glaze as a sauce for some pan seared tuna. I'm not such a fan of tuna jerky myself.

I'm sure Tyler would be open to making a soap in this particular scent for you. Do you know if this is the fight club's off season?

Jumping to the comments to say that I am a *converted* cilantro=soap person. I recommend eating it with some frequency and in increasing quantity until you adjust to it.

Sorry about the texture - what did you expect the texture to be like? Drier and more like beef jerky? I like some of the ideas above to keep that beautiful tuna raw - then you could make a gel or foam or leather out of the marinade and get the flavors together that way.

I wonder if it was the pineapple in the pineapple-ginger juice. Pineapple tends to do bad things to the texture of meats when they're marinated too long (and for this recipe... that might have been too much time in pineapple juice).

I'm still waiting for tomato confit scented soap....

Mmmmm, those flavors sound amazing!!

Alas I do feel for you. Nothing like pouring your heart and soul into a dish only to find it sucks at the end of it. As you say though, the seared route sounds like a winner, so all is not lost.

I like the idea of using the flavors in a marinade.

The dish does look good, too bad it wasn't what you expected.

It looks so pretty, though--it makes it that much sadder that the tuna gum wasn't a winner.

Hmmm... this sounds great in theory! I have a dehydrator, and am pretty sure that you have the temp set correctly. I've made beef jerky, and you really have to slice the meat really thinly otherwise it is tough. You could try it with a fattier piece of tuna, slice it thinner, dry it on silpats while blotting with paper towels every once in a while and go that route. To be honest, I'm not a fan of tuna jerky but it may be worth it to try it again on a smaller scale?

I hate spending money on food that I don't like, it is the worst thing ever!

Hee heee hee. Butt.

I have to agree with you that raw tuna is the loveliest food item around. I am a longtime vegetarian (shoot me, I know you can't live without your flesh) but if I were going to eat any mean it would be raw tuna. mmmmmmmm.

I can't imagine what the Tuna tastes like..but it certainly looks delicious. I flipped through this book at Borders yesterday and ooo'd and ahhh'd at the photos. I then decided no one could make these dishes! You have proven me wrong :)

just found your blog and i'm loving the writing and pics. thank you! i'll be back.

I, too, am so sorry this didn't work. I've been wanting to try this myself. As to cilantro...I used to think it tasted of soap as well, but now I love it. I think it had to do with being served cilantro in so many Mexican salsas. Now I will even add extra to a recipe. I think it also has to do with our tastebuds changing as we age, I know quite a few foods I detested when I was young and now love. But, cilantro was a 'special' case, and I recall the soapy flavour quite well. Try it again, just so you know.

I'm at the office, so I don't have the book in front of me to look at the pictures, but I'm wondering about the tuna's "grain."

If the strips were cut parallel to the grain, that might explain the not-good-chewiness. (Insert unhappy Wookie cry). If they were cut "across" the grain, as thin strips, I'm guessing that would help the chewey texture. I'm thinking along the lines of dealing with tough cuts of beef. Crazy?

[enter mock sarcasm mode]

By the way - thanks, thanks a lot. You totally made me go out an buy the book and now buy a bunch of weird ingredients. great. super. really, thanks...

[end mock sarcasm mode]

Cool, cool stuff!

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