Ahi Tuna, Peppered with Lemon Sauce

ahi tuna with lemon sauce

Ahi or yellowfin tuna is of the genus Thunnus and the species albacares; it is not to be confused with albacore or longfin tuna (Thunnus alalunga), even though the French use their word albacore for this yellowfin, while the Portuguese use albacora.  Note: the English albacore or longfin, of the species alalunga, is the basis for the United States tuna-canning industry.

Wikipedia sites the Hawaii Seafood Buyers Guide as stating that the enormous yellowfin tuna (with its Hawaiian name ahi) is popular in raw seafood dishes, especially sashimi, as well as being excellent for grilling, where it is often prepared seared rare.  Its buyers recognize two grades, “sashimi grade” and “other”, with variations of quality in “other”.

In sushi and sashimi, yellowfin or ahi is becoming a replacement for the near commercially extinct southern bluefin tuna (Thunnus maccoyii); presently the latter is probably the most valuable and prized fish worldwide.

On September 11, 2013, smithsonian.com referred to Japanese chefs as revering this bluefin like the Italians might a white truffle or the French oenophile might a bottle of 1945 Bordeaux.  It goes on to state that its high standing, along with that of the other tuna species such as the yellowfin and bigeye, has not always been recognized in Japan, for in the 19th century it was called neko-malagi, meaning “fish that even a cat would disdain”.  Indeed, this beef-red fish is smelly and strong-tasting.

The wide-spread acceptance, of this once essentially worthless seafood, is actually a product of a marketing scheme of the Japanese airline industry.  The story starts with the tuna sport fishing craze prevalent in the 1940’s, 50’s, and 60’s, along the Atlantic coast of the U.S. and Canada; these 400-plus-pound bluefins were being caught for fun, weighed, and photographed; then, they were either sent to landfills, sold for pet food, or thrown back into the ocean dead.

With the dawn of the 1970’s, Japanese cargo planes brought electronics to America; these same planes took advantage of the cheap New England tuna carcasses for their return flights.  Not wanting to go back empty, they ingeniously purchased these dirt-cheap bluefins, which in turn produced profits of thousands of dollars each in their homeland.

What made this country welcome this previously detested fish?  (The Smithsonian article qualifies bluefin as being not so good, with a tangy iron flavor and a texture that melts in your mouth, which amateurs love; this is opposed to the crunchier, more subtly flavored muscles tissues of animals like squid, clams, various jacks, flounder, and sea bream, which are highly favored by traditional sushi connoisseurs.)  The reasoning behind today’s widespread acceptance of bluefin can be traced back to the newly acquired taste for beef in Japan’s diet in the 70’s.  Concurrent with the electronic boom, this national appreciation for strong flavored beef brought about their subsequent open-mindedness to the dark, red flesh of tuna as well.

When I moved to Tokyo in 1980, I experienced this red meat wave; hence in 1982, after my return home, I was inspired to seek the approval of Montana governor Ted Schwiden, for my becoming an “ambassador” to this Oriental country; my proposal was to sell the then popular Montana beef, with my historical Montana dinner, entertaining our state’s clients overseas (see “About” for more on this).

This advancing beef rage in the Orient set the stage for the universal acceptance of bluefin, for it prepared Japan’s taste buds for the inundation of this tuna by their airlines; in turn, this rich, dark fish’s popularity then spread back across the ocean to America; and “by the 1990’s, the bluefin tuna was wanted almost desperately world-wide”, according to the Smithsonian.

Now it is facing commercial extinction, with yellowfin or ahi taking its place.  As the magazine states, traditional sushi sophisticates, however, do not always appreciate bluefin; some even consider it junk fish, as it was once known.  Yet the general public perhaps foolishly values this tuna, in a way which is extremely opposite to that of the mid 20th century, when it was sent to landfills along the Atlantic coast.

In America, we love to grill ahi tuna, the frequent substitute for bluefin, as well as serving it raw.  This outstanding receipt, which is prepared in minutes, affords a mouth-watering lemon sauce to compliment this firm fish.

References:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yellowfin_tuna

https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/fish/discover/species-profiles/thunnus-albacares/

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/from-cat-food-to-sushi-counter-the-strange-rise-of-the-bluefin-tuna-5980010/

medium/rare ahi

Ahi Tuna, Peppered with Lemon Sauce  Yields: 3 servings.  Total prep time: 30 min, or less.  Note: for an even quicker 10 min preparation, do step 5 only, omitting the lemon sauce, as well as all the ingredients, except the tuna, seasonings, and 2 tbsp oil.  On the other hand, you may double the sauce, allowing easy leftovers for next week’s Swift Pasta and Fresh Spinach with Lemon Sauce (1/8/18).

2 tsp butter

2 tsp flour

3 tbsp fresh lemon juice  (2 small lemons needed; may add optional zest of half a lemon.)

3 tbsp shallots, chopped small

2 medium garlic cloves, minced  (For easy prep, substitute 1 cube frozen garlic from Trader Joe’s.)

1-1.5 lb ahi tuna steaks  (Economical,  frozen, wild-caught ahi is often available in 1 lb bags at our local Grocery Outlet; may also use 3 fresh steaks, which tend to be 1.5” thick; these take longer to cook, weighing more.)

1 1/4 tsp salt  (Real Salt, Himalayan, or pink salt is so important for optimum health; a Himalayan salt is available very inexpensively, in bulk at our local Winco.)

1/4 tsp cayenne pepper

2 1/2 tsp freshly ground pepper

2 tbsp oil  (Coconut or avocado is best for health, as olive oil is carcinogenic, when heated to high temperatures.)

1/2 c heavy whipping cream  (Must be heavy cream, or it will curdle.)

  1. Heat serving plates in oven, turned on warm.
  2. cooked roux

    Next prep roux, by melting butter in a small sauce pan over medium heat; mix in flour; while stirring constantly with a wire whisk, cook until moisture is absorbed,  about 1 minute; for this sauce color of roux shouldn’t change much (see photo); set aside.

  3. Juice lemons by first rolling them on counter, pressing down hard with hand; this loosens the meat for easy juicing; set measured juice aside.
  4. Mince garlic; chop shallots in small pieces; place in separate dishes.
  5. Rub tuna with salt, cayenne, and freshly ground pepper, which have been mixed together in a small dish.
  6. Heat oil in heavy-bottom frying pan, over medium/high heat.  Gently place steaks in hot oil and cook to desired doneness; set on warm plates in oven.  (Tuna steaks will vary in thickness; sear tuna until golden brown, turning only once; 5 oz steaks will need about 1 minute per side for medium/rare; fresh tuna, which is about 1.5” thick, takes about 2 minutes on each side for rare, while 2.5 min and 3 min per side respectively for medium/rare and medium.  DO NOT OVER COOK, or it will be extremely dry.)
  7. After putting cooked tuna in warm oven, turn heat down to medium under pan and deglaze it with 2 tbsp water, wine, or chicken or fish stock.  Cook minced shallots in hot juices, just until they turn translucent, about 1 minute; stir in garlic.
  8. lemon sauce

    Finish sauce by adding heavy cream, lemon juice, and optional zest to shallots/garlic.  Blend in roux, stirring continuously with a wire whisk, until sauce is thickened (see photo).

  9. Pour sauce over fish and serve immediately.  (For a quicker version, may omit the sauce and just serve seared ahi, by following step 6 only.)
  10. Enjoy this splendor, which is the fastest gourmet meal I know!

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