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Thursday, August 26, 2010
Tuna preserved in oil

By Georgia Pellegrini

For more food-related blogs from Georgia Pellegrini, check out her website

In some parts of the country, the summer albacore run is heating up. 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, creating flavors 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, keeping a close eye on 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.

As soon as the fish is fully white and begins to flake, you can turn the heat off. 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.

Tuna Preserved in Oil

1 lb tuna
1 cups olive oil
1 clove garlic, crushed
3 sprigs thyme plus any other aromatics, such as bay leaf, sage, rosemary, lemon peel, red pepper flakes

1. Rinse the tuna and pat dry. Cut into smaller 1-2 inch portions if necessary to fit snugly into a saucepan.

2. Put in a small saucepan with the oil, place over low heat until bubbles start to come to the surface.

3. Let cook for about 10 minutes, without letting the oil simmer or bubble too much.

4. Turn off the heat and add the garlic and herbs and any other flavorings.

5. Pour the contents into a glass jar. Let cool to room temperature, cover, and let infuse over night before serving.

6. Store in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.

Serves 2

Editor's note: Georgia's passion for good food began at an early age, on a boulder by the side of a creek as she caught her trout for breakfast. After Wellesley and Harvard -- and a brief stint on Wall Street -- she decided to leave the cubicle world behind and enrolled in the French Culinary Institute in New York City.

Upon graduating at the top of her class, she worked in two of America's best restaurants, Gramercy Tavern and Blue Hill at Stone Barns, as well as in one of the premier destination restaurants in Provence, France, La Chassagnette. It was there that she decided it was time to really get at the heart of where our food comes from and head to the source -- Mother Nature. She bought a shotgun and set her sites on the cutting edge of culinary creativity intent on pushing the boundaries of American gastronomy, from field to stream to table.

Her new book, "Food Heroes: Tales of 16 food artisans preserving tradition" will be coming out this year. She currently roams the world, hunting, tasting good food and meeting the good people who make it. You can read more about her work at