In some parts of the country, the summer albacore run is in its prime. But even where tuna isn’t plentiful, this preserving technique is a must have. It falls somewhere between fresh and canned tuna, the Italians called it “conservata,” the old tradition of preserving protein in olive oil.
It is usually imported from Spain or Italy and sells for as much as $50 a pound, which is especially unnecessary given how easy it is to make yourself.
The flavor is rich the texture is meaty — not mealy the way commercial tuna can be. And because you’re controlling the process, you can flavor the oil any way you choose, giving it flavor you won’t find in regular canned tuna. You can add things like: garlic, red pepper, a bay leaf, a big piece of lemon peel, or any herbs. The tuna can also be cooked in water, though the fishiness will be stronger and the texture more dense. In oil the flavor is richer and picks up the flavorings more readily.
This tuna “consevata” is also versatile in the way you can serve it: perfect in the traditional French Niçoise salad, or a tomato based pasta sauce, or on toast with white beans and herbs.
It stores in the refrigerator for about two weeks and the technique is so effortless that it will work well for small batches.
The kind of tuna you start with of course has an effect on the flavor but I’ve found that even store bought frozen tuna, defrosted overnight produces a great result. The best cut is the fatty belly if you can find it.
It’s important to use a small saucepan that will hold the tuna snugly, and just enough oil to cover. The most important factor is the temperature. Start the fish in cold oil over the lowest flame and never let it get to even a simmer. Otherwise the tuna will turn tough.
You turn the heat off as soon as the fish is fully white and begins to flake. It will continue to cook as the oil cools.
Once the tuna is cool enough to handle, transfer it to a clean, lidded container like a mason jar, and pour the oil and flavorings over the top. Screw the lid on top and let it cool completely.
The one thing you can’t do is store the fish in the cabinet unless you seal the jar with a pressure cooker, because the fish doesn’t hold enough acid to store in the oil without refrigeration. It will keep in the refrigerator for two weeks, however, and it probably won’t last that long anyhow, given how good it is!
Want to know more about seafood? Join me and Jon Rowley, the man who changed the way America eats seafood, in Seattle this week. We’ll be at Elliot Bay Books on Thursday, August 26th at 7pm, for my book tour. He’ll be talking about his “rigor mortis theory” and we’ll even be tasting a little whiskey. You don’t want to miss it!