For most of my cooking life, canned tuna has been a very useful pantry item. Tonnato sauce with the first rose veal of the season. Salade nicoise for a ladies lunch. Or an incomparable tuna noodle casserole.
Back many decades ago, the summer between sophomore and junior year of college, I moved to the beach. I worked in the bars, both waitressing and bartending. It was a crazy time, hard work, long hours, multiple jobs, good money, and I was banking every cent for the next year in school.
My apartment was kind of scary, but the kitchen was functional. Even at 19, I knew that cooking for myself was cheaper than eating out. I existed on fresh salads, cheese and bread. I usually got fed at work – fried, bar food, for the most part. Staff dinners? I wish.
One of the four or five jobs I held down that summer was bartending at a small, private marina. The big fishing boats with a whole lot of fellows at sea with young girls and free flowing alcohol. I stayed on land, welcoming them back and raking in the tips.
Long before sushi was sold in grocery stores, I don’t think I ever imagined fresh tuna. It certainly wasn’t on menus at the time. My grandmother made tuna salad with celery and grated onion, Hellman’s mayonnaise. My other grandmother made tuna noodle casserole with cream cheese, like kugel. Tuna was not overfished, it was barely on the food-radar in 1977. Those were the days of baked potato skins, with everything. And Buffalo chicken wings.
Back then, the fisherman, a customer said, “Hey, you want some tuna?” And handed me a bag of 25 lbs. of red fleshed fish…I had never seen tuna in anything other than a can.
I continued to enjoy the tuna grilled, for a couple more days, and then simmered it in a scented bouillion (peppercorns, bayleaf, lemon slices, parsley) until just done, and flaked it to make familiar tuna salad. I froze a good portion of that cooked fish, and ate it in a million incarnations for many weeks. I remember many tuna casseroles, because I was 19 and I was broke, and I could eat carbs and I lacked food experience and imagination. And free food was a good thing.
I fell in love with tuna that day.
How did we get to this place? Where there are barely enough tuna in the sea. They may disappear. I came face to face with this thought all day today.
I’d been thinking about a blog post on canning tuna. On the benefits, the techniques, the questions that might come up. I trust Vern at the Bethesda Central Farm Market, and when his sign said line caught tuna, I made a purchase, and planned a day of preserving and writing.
I looked at this beautiful fish flesh. How large the fish must have been. I remembered that day more than 35 years ago when fresh tuna was an exotic novelty.I remembered a trip to Italy and the first taste of Tonnato sauce that made me a convert to Italian style tuna, usually preserved in a jar in oil.
For years, I would splurge here and there on this wonderful fish, just as I would buy exceptional sardines, smoked oysters and anchovies. And then I read Well-Preserved (Eugenia Bone) and canned a few jars of tuna. So tender and moist, well and simply flavored. I have canned two or three pounds of tuna every year or two for years.
Yet, this year, today, I was haunted by the stories, the many many stories, about tuna’s precarious situation and the absolute unsustainability of fishing for tuna.
I’ve thought home canned tuna was solid gold in a jar. It’s expensive to produce, about $9./half pint (similar high quality products are $12-18. at gourmet grocers.) I adore it, but perhaps its time to use the experience to learn to preserve other fish like sardines and herring and salmon, and maybe bi-valves, like mussels or oysters (smoked) that are not endangered.
Today, if someone were to hand me 25 lbs. of tuna. I would first ask where and how it was caught. There is a scarcity, a serious sustainability issue, with tuna. I don’t eat much, and I am willing to pay premium prices for line caught fish. For sustainably fished tuna. And a fishmonger who knows the answer to the question – where is this from and how was it caught.
But it’s raising larger issues for me. These are probably the last jars of tuna.
3 lbs. fresh tuna
Olive oil, high quality with a clean, simple flavor
White vinegar (optional)
Get your pressure canner set up.
Warm the olive oil in a heavy pot. You just want to warm, not cook, it.
Cut the tuna into batons the height of your jars less one inch headspace, and into other chunks. Get the entire piece of tuna cut up and ready to go. Assume 1″ headspace.
Fit the batons into the jar, tucking pieces in to fill the jar snugly.
Add 1/2 tsp. salt to each jar.
Now, carefully add some oil to each jar. Run a jar bubbler (or plastic knife) around the inside of the jar. Let the oil fill all the nooks and crannies in the jars.
The warm oil will start to cook the tuna just a little. That’s okay. Add more oil until the jars are filled to the 1″ mark- watch your headspace. It’s really important these jars are not overfilled.
Clean the top of the jars with a towel moistened with white vinegar. This will cut any oil that might be lingering on the rim, and will ensure a good seal.
Pressure can at 11# of pressure for 100 minutes.
After processing, place jars in a dark closet for six months. Allow the fish to cure.