I would like to say I have always been a fan of cured tuna, but I simply cannot. My first encounter with cured fish of any type was less than spectacular. In fact, let’s just say it came close to turning me completely against tuna all together. The long anticipated first bite held an incredibly muskiness with essentially no flavor other than salt. It would be years before an attempt was made to sample cured tuna again, happily with different results.
Sitting in my friend, Gilah’s kitchen one day, I was horrified to watch as she not only added her cured tuna to our lunch salad, but also to the red sauce simmering on the cooktop. A beautiful salad I was now sure I would not eat. A red sauce I had so been looking forward to savoring suddenly presented images of being poured down the drain. Gilah simply smiled and placed a very small slice of the tuna on a plate and passed it across the table. “Just one little bite.”
I will admit it took incredible courage to place the first bite into my mouth. I pride myself on experiencing new foods eagerly, but once tasted with offensive results, it becomes a part of my culinary checklist of things not to be repeated. I was stunned by the absolute delectable flavors emerging from this tuna. While it definitely held a briny taste, the essence of various herbs and tanginess of vinegar emerged. In the span of one minute, I was happily moved to the proponent court of cured tuna.
Since that morning, I have sampled several varieties of cured fish. Tuna, salmon, grouper and others have found their way to my plate. Some were definitely much less than desirable but the majority became a part of my repertoire of foods to be enjoyed and experienced often. Once I understood their role as a foundation flavor, these specialty fish became a staple in my kitchen.
Prepared correctly, cured tuna has the ability to be the main feature in a salad or hide subtly in sauces and pasta dishes. Adding thin slices or small bits to a salad adds a savory component and can be balanced by adding berries or ripe pears. In sauces and pasta dishes, small-diced cured tuna hides in the background. You will know it is there but your guests may not. A crazy sounding use is to add just a bit of finely ground cured tuna pumpkin pie or any sweet potato dish. It simply adds a flavor boost that is definitely missed if omitted.
Cured tuna holds its texture and flavor for two weeks in the refrigerator so it is best prepared in small batches. Since cured tuna it is easily prepared, I work on a new batch every few weeks. That is, of course, if the tuna has not disappeared before then!
Here are a few suggestions for successfully creating cured tuna:
Experiment, experiment – the herb combo is based on preference, white wine vinegar or apple cider vinegar results in a flavor variance, including sugar creates a sweetened tuna
Use only fresh, sushi grade tuna fillets – any thing less than sushi grade results in an inferior texture; old fish provides a musty flavor and smell
Cure time should be no less than 12 hours and no more than 36 – less time results in a moister, less compact fillet; longer time creates a drier fillet
Discard if older than two weeks – do not attempt to freeze as it degrades the texture and flavors
Above all, discover how including cured tuna in your list of foundation flavors takes a variety of dishes to a higher flavor tier.
After experimenting with various cure mixes, vinegars, sugar or no sugar, curing times and preparation methods, the recipe presented here represents a cured tuna that works well in salads as in sauces. There is no sugar; the vinegar is red wine; and a fennel thyme combo shine as the flavoring. The cure is 24 hours resulting in a compact fillet. The methods and ingredients can easily be used to create other cured fish such as salmon or white fish.
12 ounces sushi grade tuna fillets (shown are three 4 ounce fillets)
1 ½ T fennel seeds
1 T fresh thyme
6 T sea salt
½ t fresh ground black pepper
Pat both sides of tuna to remove outside moisture.
Place fillets in a one inch deep pan large enough to hold a plate, board or other weight. Pour half of the vinegar on the fillets. Turn and pour remaining vinegar on fillets.
In a medium bowl, combine salt, herbs and pepper.
Evenly divide half of the salt mix between the tuna fillets. Press into the fish. Turn and press the remaining salt mix onto the fillets.
Cover fillets with plastic wrap. Push under the fillets slightly. Ensure all sides of the tuna is covered.
Cover the fillets with aluminum foil, pushing down the sides but no under the fillets.
Place a weight on top of the fillets. (I used two broth boxes). Place pan in refrigerator. Leave for 12 hours. Uncover fillets and turn. Replace with new plastic wrap and foil. Add weight and return to refrigerator for 12 hours.
Remove pan from refrigerator. Uncover fillets. Brush off any remaining salt cure from the fillets.
Tuna is ready to serve. May be stored in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.