Citizens! The Abiding One – YOUR TFD! – is known far and wide for his love of powerful flavors that also reciprocate off of a subtlety of preparation and foundational ingredients, providing an ideal taste showcase! This dish fits all of these criteria and is a classic of Italian cuisine from Piedmont – I speak of vitello tonnato, cold slices of veal served with a rich and powerful sauce made from canned tuna!
Yes – CANNED TUNA.
Don’t turn your noses up at this, Citizens – this is a supremely delicious combo that will become your new favorite! It is worth noting that while the classic dish calls for veal, you can easily substitute pork loin or even whole turkey breast if you prefer not to eat veal for personal reasons. This is one of the few dishes in Italy where such a meat substitution works – I would never, for example, switch a pork chop for a veal chop in this recipe.
Vitello tonnato is an Italian (Piedmontese) dish of cold, sliced veal covered with a creamy, mayonnaise-like sauce that has been flavored with tuna. It is served chilled or at room temperature, generally in the summertime, as the main course of an Italian meal or as “an exceedingly elegant antipasto for an elaborate dinner.”
It is also very popular in Argentina, where it is known as vitel toné, and considered a traditional Christmas dish.
It is prepared at least a day or more in advance by braising or simmering a piece of veal from the back leg called Eye Round, which is then cut into thin, individual servings.
For the sauce, originally fresh white tuna (in most versions today, canned tuna is used) was simmered until fully cooked in white wine, cider vinegar, white onion and garlic, and then puréed with a mix of olive and vegetable oil and egg yolks in an electric blender or food processor to form a thick mayonnaise.
For the mayonnaise, a variety of seasonings can be used, including anchovies, cayenne pepper, capers and lemon juice. The thick, smooth purée is then somewhat thinned with a little water and cooking liquid from the veal and a few capers are stirred in.
Some of the sauce is spread out on a serving platter and the cold slices of veal are arranged in a single layer on top. The rest of the sauce is then poured over the veal so that it is, generally, completely covered. The dish is allowed to refrigerate for a period up to 5 days to fully develop the flavor.
Traditionally served cold as an antipasto, it should – ideally – be made from the Girello or eye round, which is a cut from the hind leg. It’s best when not too young but still very light in the flesh. It may need to be ordered ahead from your butcher.
Nowadays, while the sauce for vitello tonnato often includes mayonnaise, but my version is the traditional one from ‘Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Good Eating’ by Pellegrino Artusi. First published in 1891, this book is considered to be the definitive text on classical Italian cookery.
This is a perfect dish for entertaining. While most versions you see in restaurants outside Italy sauce the veal to order it is traditionally made a day in advance. It’s definitely one of those dishes that are better the day after it’s made.
Leaving the veal to sit in the tuna sauce for a day allows the flavors to infuse and the veal to soak up the sauce. Take it out in time to lose the chill of the fridge, and remember to have some crusty bread on hand for when the veal is gone. It is a crime to waste that sauce!
The veal is poached slowly so it remains tender and pink in the center; it’s important to get this right – it should feel firm, but spring back from the touch. Once cooked, the veal should be sliced as thinly as as your sharpest knife will allow. And the tuna sauce, the hero here, should be light and creamy.
Citizens, this is an awesome appetizer and also makes a killer sandwich – no matter how you eat it, I promise you will love this delicious recipe!
Battle on – the Generalissimo