The name itself is a puzzling one. It roughly translates to "tuna-ed veal." It actually sounded full-on disgusting to me before I ever tasted the dish, back in my days as a college student studying abroad in Tuscany. Then I tried it. Let's just say it became an instant favorite. Now, if it's summertime, and it's too warm to eat a hot main course, I'll always go for the tonnato -- from Sant Ambroeus in Southampton to Trattoria Ponte Sisto in Rome, this is my hot weather order of choice. And sometimes, if I'm feeling ambitious, or I'm having guests, I'll make it myself. It's always best that way, isn't it?
Vitello tonnato is a dish that the north of Italy can lay claim to, specifically the Piemonte region. It can also be made with pork (as in the photo above) or turkey, but veal is the classic. It's served at room temperature or chilled, which makes it an excellent summertime main course.
It's traditionally prepared a day in advance, to let the flavors really combine well. The cut of veal used is generally the eye round (a cut from the hind leg), sliced thin once it's cooked and has "rested" for a day in the fridge. The meat is braised in water/white wine/vinegar with some herbs and spices, or stock, or if you're really going thorough and old-school, you add olive oil-packed Italian tuna to the cooking liquid, and this braising liquid then becomes the base of the sauce -- this way the flavors of the two star ingredients blend and meld into a tastier whole. A homemade mayonnaise is then prepared by whisking together egg yolks, vegetable and olive oils, and a touch of vinegar as the basic base, to which the tuna is added. There is some argument as to whether or not the sauce gets slathered over all slices so that they may marinate in the sauce for several hours, or it the cooked veal gets sliced and served alongside a slightly thicker sauce for you to dip into or spread on the slices as you like. There is no argument, however, that capers are a must when serving.
For the veal:
- 2 - 2 1/2 pounds lean veal roast, preferably top round, firmly trussed, or turkey breast or pork loin
- 1 7-ounce container top-quality Italian tuna, shredded
- 1 medium-size white onion, peeled and roughly chopped
- 1 rib of celery, roughly chopped
- 1 carrot, peeled and roughly chopped
- 1 bay leaf
- 3 sprigs parsley
- 1 ½ cups dry white wine
1 1/2 cups water
- ½ teaspoon Kosher salt
- 10 black peppercorns
For the tuna sauce:
- 2 egg yolks
- 1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 12-ounce container top-quality Italian tuna in olive oil, finely chopped, with its oil
- 2 anchovies, rinsed, dried and minced
- 1 tablespoon caper brine
- Lemon juice
- veal broth (see above)
- Kosher salt to taste
- Truss the veal with cotton string, so that it resembles a roast. Place the meat in a heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven and cover with tuna, onion, celery, carrot, bay leaf, parsley, wine, broth, salt and pepper, then heat over a high flame until it comes to a boil. Immediately reduce heat to very low, cover and simmer for 45 minutes, or until the internal temperature of the veal reaches 130 degrees.
- Remove meat to a large, nonreactive bowl, strain the broth over it, cover and allow the meat to cool in the refrigerator, preferably overnight. (Discard the solids.)
- While the meat cools, put yolks in a medium bowl and beat with a wire whisk. Begin to add oil as you beat, a thin stream at first, adding more as each bit is incorporated. When a thick emulsion forms, you can add oil at a slightly faster rate. The entire process should take 5 to 7 minutes, and you may not use all of the oil.
- Add tuna, anchovies and caper brine to a food processor, and pulse. Add the mayo and pulse to puree into a thick mixture. Add a few tablespoons of the veal broth to thin the sauce slightly. Add lemon juice to taste, and more broth if the sauce needs thinning. Taste for salt. The sauce should not taste overly mayonnaise-y but should be reminiscent of the best quality mayo.
- Remove the cooled veal from its broth, untie and cut across the grain into very thin slices. Smear the sauce on the bottom of the platter. Arrange the veal slices neatly on a platter with the edges of the slices overlapping, and spoon the tuna sauce over the top. You can place another layer of veal and repeat, but don't do more than two layers on one plate. Cover and return to refrigerator overnight or until ready to use. Garnish with capers or fried capers, lemon, hard-boiled eggs, or sprigs of parsley. Alternatively, you can slice the veal and serve the sauce in the center of the plate or on the side.
- Return to room temperature before serving.