This is a typical way of cooking tuna on the island of Favignana, off Sicily’s west coast. We find the classic island supporting act (the combination of capers, olives, tomatoes and oregano) alongside the omnipresent west coast breadcrumb coating. Breadcrumbs are of course popular everywhere in Sicily, but in western Sicily are often found as a topping, whereas in the eastern part of the island they are used more often as a stuffing, or to give bulk and texture rather than a crispy contrast to meat or fish. In Trapani, for example, cuttlefish are opened up and coated in a mixture very similar to the one I used for today’s tuna and then finished off under a hot grill.
I remember differences with my Scots friend Alan over pizza here in Messina. I, spoilt after six months living in Naples, had very clear ideas about what pizza should be, but he was equally convinced that I was missing the point: “A pizza’s a pizza Simon”. The way he saw it, a pizza is by definition a cheap and cheerful snack, and should not have any pretensions above its station. Judging by the way they treat pizza in Scotland, he may of course be right… But why mention this you ask? Because it’s in a recipe like today’s that you begin to see why Sicilians are so enamoured of breadcrumbs, and how these humble leftovers can acquire pretensions well above their station. Some of them will crisp up, and some will be drenched in herby, tomato-infused cooking juices and olive oil, giving a mouth-watering contrast. They taste so good you’ll feel like spooning them up on their own. Even Alan would agree, but would never admit it to a Sassenach like me…
If you can, get tuna from the underside of the fish, between the belly and the tail, which is tender but not fatty, the cut known here as “tarantello”. The belly itself, the “surra”, is is the kind of cut the Japanese will pay high prices for; marbled and meltingly soft, but too rich for some (most) people.
- 1kg tuna in 2cm slices
- 100g black olives, stoned and halved
- A couple of handfuls of fresh breadcrumbs from a rustic loaf (about 60g)
- 1 tablespoon salted capers, well rinsed
- 8 ripe piccadilly tomatoes, cut into six lengthways
- 2 tablespoons freshly chopped parsley
- 1 tablespoon oregano
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Soak the tuna steaks in a bowl of salted water (one level tablespoon is enough) for an hour. Drain and dry with kitchen roll. This makes a big difference, since it tempers the sometimes-excessive gaminess of this blood-rich fish, resulting in a more delicate flavour. It also allows the other ingredients to complement the fish rather than be overpowered by it. This preliminary step is also worth trying even if you are just going to grill your tuna; more so, perhaps.
- Drizzle some oil over the base of a roasting tin and lay the tuna slices on top. Scatter over the tomatoes, capers, olives, herbs and breadcrumbs, season well and drizzle over some more olive oil. Be generous.
- Bake at 180°C for 30 minutes, turning on the grill at full blast for the last five minutes to lightly brown the breadcrumb topping.
Serve with a light Sicilian red such as Cerasuolo di Vittoria, or a rich, barrel-aged Chardonnay if you prefer a white.