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!

Ahi Tuna with Black Bean & Eggplant Dish

When I require a firm fish for creating recipes, I prefer ahi tuna over halibut, which tends to be drier.  I discovered in Culinary Artistry, by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page, that the excellence of tuna steaks is enhanced by both eggplant and black beans; lemon and garlic also compliment ahi.1   It took courage for me to experiment with blending all the above together in a dish needed for a special occasion, during which I honored the Lomilos from Uganda.

Cooking takes risks, as life does; nothing comes automatically.  A patient pressing-in is required to foster creative mastery.

I learned an important lesson in my early thirties when I moved to Portland, for then I was struggling to overcome an addiction to alcohol.  In the process of sobering up, I was taught to trust in the history of old-timers in areas that I didn’t yet have enough victory of my own.  As a result, I listened carefully to my elders’ testimonies, holding fast to their professed truths.  The pay-off was great, for I haven’t had a drink since 2/06/86.

In like manner, I have reached out to experts in the culinary field over the years; thus, amplifying my own inherent strengths.  The outcome is an acquired proficiency in successfully combining foods, as exemplified here.

I see parallels between skills gained in cooking and those procured in living.  If we continue with these teachings in my blog, I promise that ability in both these areas will be attained.

I can’t stress enough that patience and trust are essential elements.  Let us walk in the light each of us has, taking baby steps of courage to rise to our next level.

True to form, I sought help from experts in writing this recipe and its history.  For instance, I needed to know more about not overcooking tuna.  Harold McGee teaches about the meat-red color of certain tunas in On Food and Cooking; it is caused by the oxygen-storing pigment myoglobin, which is needed for this fish’s nonstop, high-velocity life.  This deep red color is lost, if this fish is not frozen well below -22 degrees F, which helps explain the brownish color of some frozen tunas.  When cooked, it looses this blood red color at about the same temperature that beef does, between 140-160 degrees F; it is best to undercook this food, or dryness will result.  If you like your meat rare, you will probably also like rare tuna; thus, be careful to check for color during its preparation.2

This ahi may be made with onions that are quickly sautéed, but it is better to carmelize them, a somewhat painstaking process if done correctly.  Next week’s entry will be for nutty, carmelized onions and carrots.  I encourage you to make a double batch of these onions ahead of time; they store for up to 3 days.  The proven result: both the carrots and this tuna will be fast and easy to execute.

Let’s humbly learn from the masters, purposing to keep all seeds of knowledge in fertile soil.

Eat hearty, this is a delicious fish!

  1. Andrew Dorenburg and Karen Page, Culinary Artistry (Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1996), pp. 187, 273.
  2. Harold McGee, On Food and Cooking (New York: Scribner, 1984, 2004), p. 194.

black bean and eggplant dish

Ahi Tuna with Black Beans and Eggplant Dish  Yields: 4 servings.  Total active prep time: 50 min.

Note: if desired the onions may be carmelized several days ahead, using next week’s carmelized onion and carrots’ recipe; the eggplant & bean dish may be made several hours in advance and reheated 15 minutes before serving, as you cook the tuna.

6 1/2 tbsp oil  (Avocado oil is best, coconut oil will do; olive oil produces carcinogens when heated to high temperatures.)

1 medium/large yellow onion, halved at the root and stem and cut in 1/8 inch slices

1 pound eggplant

1/4 cup water

3 tbsp lemon juice, fresh squeezed  (2 small lemons needed.)

5 tsp salt, or to taste  (The coarser kosher salt is best here for rubbing in tuna steaks.)

3 tsp fresh ground pepper, or to taste

5 large cloves of garlic, minced  (3 frozen cubes of garlic from Trader Joe’s makes preparation easier.)

1-15 ounce can of black beans  (Organic is best; Simple Truth brand at our local Fred Meyer’s is very economical.)

2 tsp crushed dried red pepper

2 tsp garlic powder

2 tsp dried ginger

2 tsp dried oregano  (Organic is available for $1.99 at Trader’s!)

4 ahi tuna steaks, or about 1 1/3 pound

1 tsp sesame oil

  1. fond on bottom of pan of eggplant

    For quickly sautéing onions, heat 1 tbsp oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat; place a small piece of onion in oil; when it sizzles, add rest of onion and cook until well browned, stirring occasionally.  (Better yet, use carmelized onions by utilizing next week’s recipe to make a double batch of this time-consuming treat; they store up to 3 days.)  Meanwhile go to next step.

  2. Cut eggplant in small 1 inch cubes, set aside.
  3. Roll lemons on counter, pressing down hard with your hand to loosen juices.  Juice lemon and set aside 3 tbsp.
  4. If using fresh garlic, mince now.
  5. When onions are cooked, place in a bowl; next, heat 1 1/2 tbsp oil in pan; place piece of eggplant in oil; when it sizzles, add rest of eggplant.  Cook until soft, about 5 minutes, stirring frequently.  After 5 minutes, add 1/4 cup of water and deglaze pan (scrape bottom with a wooden or heat resistance plastic spatula to loosen cooked on fond, see photo).  Cook until water is evaporated; this vegetable will be somewhat mushy.
  6. Stir in onions, lemon juice, salt, pepper, and garlic; if garlic is fresh, cook only until you can smell it; see Tomato/Feta Chicken (2016/07/25) for tips on cooking with garlic.  If using the frozen cubes, cook just until melted and blended in well.
  7. Gently stir in the can of black beans, which has been drained; do not over-stir, as this breaks down beans.  Adjust seasonings.  May set aside to finish just before serving, or immediately proceed to step 9, in which case turn down heat to medium/low under eggplant/beans.  (See  above photo for finished product.)
  8. If finishing later, began the next step 15 minutes before serving time.
  9. Just prior to serving, blend together 4 tsp salt (preferably kosher salt), 2 tsp fresh ground pepper, dried red pepper, garlic powder, ginger, and oregano; rub seasoning into tuna steaks.  (If bean mixture is cold, begin reheating it for 8-10 minutes over medium heat before sautéing tuna, stirring occasionally.)
  10. Melt 4 tbsp oil and 1 tsp sesame oil in a large sauté pan over medium/high heat; just as it begins smoking, sear steaks in hot oil-2 minutes per side for medium rare, give or take 1/2 minute for rare or medium.  The time may need adjusting as thickness of steaks varies; you can check the color of tuna by piercing thickest part of fish with a sharp knife to check for doneness at the very end; it should be somewhat red for medium-rare.  Do not overcook tuna.
  11. Serve with carmelized onions and carrots (next week’s post).  Enjoy!