I grew up in a town with a large Italian immigrant population, and a lot of my schoolmates had parents who spoke primarily Italian at home. When asked the usual grade-school question, “What kind of sandwich did your mom pack?” they would often answer: “Tunafish.” This always sounded odd to my ears, because… duh, what else would a tuna be other than a fish?
Now, grown-up and citified, I think I’ve found a use for the word tunafish. It is to tuna as peanut butter is to peanuts: the thing, smushed up into something you can spread on a sandwich. It’s not necessarily wrong or juvenile, it’s just one or two steps removed from the original thing.
So, this post is not about tunafish. It’s about tuna. Specifically, it’s about my very favourite way to make tuna.
You will probably end up buying yellowfin or bigeye tuna. You can’t afford bluefin, and even if you could, you shouldn’t. “Sushi quality” tuna is obviously what you’re looking for, but that can vary widely in quality, and even good quality stuff can differ greatly in appearance. It can be anything from ruby red to dark purple, but the best specimens have an almost luminous quality, they look moist and plump, and they have relatively few bands of white sinew (connective tissue) running through the flesh. Everyone says fish shouldn’t smell fishy or feel tacky, which is true, but that advice is usually of little help when you’re at the fish counter.
Okay – back home and onto the prep. Get your cast iron or heavy (uncoated) steel skillet out, coat it with a super-thin film of oil (I use canola, which has a high heat tolerance) and heat it up until it’s almost smoking. Sprinkle each side of the tuna with a pinch of coarse salt and coarsely ground pepper, then coat it in black sesame seeds.
Give it anywhere between 60 and 80 seconds on each side – enough to form a 1mm layer of opaque flesh. It will cook a bit more off the heat.
Rest it on a cutting board for a minute, then slice it against the grain into 1/4 inch thick slices. (See how I’m rawkin’ the metric and imperial systems? I grew up on the U.S.-Canada border.)
You can serve this with soy sauce (which I find overwhelms the fish), ponzu (yum, if you have it) or a simple squeeze of lemon. Fragrant white rice and steamed green beans or stir-fried snow peas are nice alongside.