Culture / Foodie Events

The Best Ugly Dish Anywhere

This Seemingly Mundane Combo Tastes Beautiful — and Not Just in Prague

BY // 08.23.16

Tuna and veal: They can be mundane, or they can be sublime. I love tuna packed in olive oil, dark meat or light (and the Italians seem to do it best). Some of the best veal I’ve tasted comes from Applecheek Farm, a family-run place in Hyde Park, Vermont. Don’t give me tuna packed in water or vegetable oil, and let’s ban industrial-farmed veal.

It is not the most beautiful of dishes, but it will make your guests very happy.
It is not the most beautiful of dishes, but it will make your guests very happy.

Once you have the proper tuna and veal, here’s what you should do: Make vitello tonnato. It’s a great dish, this Piedmontese staple, and it’s fun to make. The flavors are comforting and profound, and your guests will want to know your technique. If you’ve never made it before, the experience will be a rewarding one, because this is a dish with an interesting history and pedigree. Plus, it touches (primarily) on the foodways of two Italian regions, Piedmont and Liguria — the former supplied the veal, the latter the canned tuna — and it’s always beneficial to learn about a dish’s wellspring (though many are disputed).

Finally, vitello tonnato teaches patience: It is not eaten right away, but is put in the refrigerator so that that flavors can mingle, infuse, and develop. The resulting product never fails to satisfy.

Earlier this summer, I had a good version of the dish at Divinis, a restaurant in Prague, and though it was not a traditional (or my) version, the sauce was smooth and possessed an abundance of anchovy flavor, and the veal was properly cooked. The disappointing thing was that the cook had not allowed the sauce and veal time to mingle, so the flavor profile as a whole was not what it might have been.

This woman could cook Italian cuisine.
This woman could cook Italian cuisine.

The version I make is adapted from Marcella Hazan’s recipe, and it’s your dish of the week. It’s marked by these dicta: do not salt the water in which you braise the veal, add nothing but vegetables to that water (carrot, celery, onion, parsley, bay leaf), and slice the cooked veal thinly. Finally — and this is vital — the tuna sauce and the veal must be plated in alternating layers on a platter; only in this manner will the flavors marry the way they should. Vitello tonnato is traditionally a summer dish, and while it is perfect for hot days and warm evenings, I give you permission to serve this delightful item in any season you desire.

Here’s what you need:

For the veal

  • a 2-pound veal roast, top round preferably, gently trussed
  • 1 carrot, peeled and chopped
  • 1 celery stalk, chopped
  • 1 yellow onion, peeled and chopped
  • 4 sprigs Italian parsley
  • 1 bay leaf

For the sauce

  • 1 can olive-oil packed tuna
  • 6 anchovy filets
  • 1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
  • 3 tablespoon salt-packed capers, soaked and rinsed
  • 1.25 cups mayonnaise

One: Put roast in a deep and heavy pan, then add vegetables, parsley, and bay leaf. Add water to cover roast. Remove veal, set it on a plate. Cover pan and bring water to boil, then return veal to pan. Return to boil then simmer, covered, for 2 hours, adding more water if necessary. After 2 hours, remove pan from heat and let meat cool in liquid.

Two: Make the sauce. Drain the tuna and put it in a food processor (metal blade attached). Add olive oil, anchovies, lemon juice, and capers, then process until you have a creamy, beige sauce. Spoon mayonnaise into a small bowl, then fold tuna sauce into the mayo in a thorough but gentle manner. Refrigerate.

Three: Once the meat is cool, remove the trussing strings and cut across the grain into thin slices (1/4 inch is fine). Spread some of the sauce onto a platter, then arrange a layer of veal slices on top; do not overlap. Repeat the process until the veal is no more, finishing with a layer of sauce.

A good wine for your veal and tuna.
A good wine for your veal and tuna.

Four: Cover the platter with plastic wrap and refrigerate for (at least) 24 hours. You can go as long as one week. I have experimented with time, and three days in the refrigerator is what I prefer. Before serving, bring the dish to room temperature; using a spatula, smooth the surface of the sauce. I like to garnish the dish with whole capers (if you use the salt-packed variety, drain and rinse them first) and Italian parsley leaves.

A wine to pair? Let’s stay in Italy and go with a Vermentino from Giacomelli, the 2014 Colli di Luni Pianacce, which you can get for around $23 at Houston Wine Merchant and other good retailers.


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