By Henry Schliff
For many years tuna has been second only to shrimp as America’s favorite seafood but most people bought it in a can to make tuna salads and casseroles. That has all dramatically changed now and fresh tuna is wildly popular, so much so, that Ocracoke Seafood is having a hard time keeping it in stock this summer. Almost to prove this point, just a few days ago when tuna was out of stock, a woman rejected the wide array of choices in the case (pristine fish along with shrimp, scallops, and oysters) and walked out saying “I guess I’m just a tuna girl.”
I too have come to love fresh tuna. I like it marinated and grilled, seared or blackened, wrapped in a sushi roll, or made into fresh tuna burgers. When cooked rare to medium-rare it rivals the best filet mignon for tenderness and taste and is well suited for the most delicate of French sauces. When grilled it can be marinated in assertive Asian flavorings and is delicious served with pickled ginger and Japanese horseradish (wasabi). On a toasted roll it makes a burger that rivals the best that ground beef can offer.
- Tuna inhabit the upper and middle layers of ocean water but can be found at a depth of 1,600 feet or more depending on size and species. Tuna are found in all of the oceans of the world (except in the Artic) and roam continuously over long distances north – south and across oceans.
- Tuna has a unique circulatory and respiratory system that gives them an internal temperature that is higher than the surrounding water. This higher internal temperature combined with their oxygen-rich blood (which results from the continuous movement of water over their gills) permits tuna to swim at high rates of speed (yellow-fin tuna can swim up to 50 mph for short distances).
- Tuna feed indiscriminately on a large variety of crustaceans (shrimp, lobster, crabs), cephalopods (octopus and squid), and fish. They use their keen eyesight and swift swimming ability to compete with other large predators.
- Yellow-fin tuna (called Ahi in Hawaii) is the most common species of tuna found in North Carolina waters. Yellow-fins grow rapidly upwards to 6 feet in length, can weigh up to 400 pounds or more, and live for up to 8 years.
- A 3 oz. serving around of yellow-fin tuna has only 110 calories, 24 to 25 grams of protein and very little fat. It provides beneficial amounts of choline, vitamin A, vitamin B12, riboflavin, thiamin, Vitamin B6 and niacin along with several beneficial minerals (magnesium, potassium, phosphorus, selenium, and iron).
Purchasing and cooking fresh tuna
Always buy fresh tuna from a market that you know you can trust (preferably sushi-grade and domestic) and never pre-wrapped in a supermarket. The flesh of fresh tuna should always be very moist, have a shiny deep red color, and a fresh salty aroma (never a pungent smell). Tuna is more prone than other fish to bacterial development because of its high internal temperature and should always be kept on ice until it is cooked, preferably on the same day it is purchased. It can also be tightly wrapped and frozen immediately and used within a month but should always be defrosted slowly under refrigeration and cooked immediately.
Since tuna has very little fat it can get dry and chewy if overcooked and should always be cooked either rare, medium rare or at least pink inside. If you prefer your fish well done I recommend that you buy another fish that has a higher fat content or one that is served with a sauce that has a high fat content (butter or cream).
Tuna Burgers in Paradise
1 lb. fresh tuna
4 Tbs. olive oil
1/3 cup minced sweet onion
2 medium-size cloves garlic, peeled and finely minced
1 jalapeno, seeds and veins removed, finely minced
½ cup fresh bread crumbs
2 tsp. low salt, naturally brewed, soy sauce
¼ tsp. black pepper
¼ tsp. thyme
Cut the tuna into small pieces and coarsely chop it in a food processor or finely chop the tuna by hand using a sharp knife. Place the tuna in a bowl. In a small skillet cook the onion in olive oil until it becomes soft and translucent. Stir in the garlic and cook briefly until it softens. Add the onion and garlic to the tuna along with the remaining ingredients. Form the tuna into 4 patties, place on a plate, and refrigerate until cooking. Heat the remaining olive oil in a large skillet and add the tuna burgers leaving enough space in between them for turning. For rare tuna burgers cook over high heat until seared underneath (firm and lightly browned – about 2-3 minutes). Turn and sear the burgers on the second side. Remove the burgers from the skillet and place them on a serving dish (for burgers that are more well done adjust the cooking time accordingly).
Serving the Tuna Burgers
4 toasted rolls or 8 toasted slices of French or Italian bread
Ginger-wasabi mayonnaise (see recipe below)
1-2 fresh tomatoes, thinly sliced
½ large sweet onion, thinly sliced
½ bunch romaine lettuce leaves, washed and dried
Sriracha hot chili Sauce (available at Thai Moon)
Spread an ample amount of the ginger-wasabi mayonnaise on the bottom half each roll or on 4 of the bread slices. Place the burgers on top of the mayonnaise and then layer with slices of tomato, sweet onion, and lettuce leaves. Cover with the tops of the rolls or the 4 remaining bread slices. Serve with Sriracha sauce (or your favorite hot sauce) to be used as desired.
½ cup mayonnaise
2 packed teaspoons of peeled and grated fresh ginger
2 tsp. wasabi powder (available at Ocracoke Seafood and Zillie’s Island Pantry)
Place the mayonnaise into a small bowl and whisk in the ginger and wasabi.
Note: to make fresh breadcrumbs: Place slices of fresh bread into the bowl of a food processor and chop them into coarse crumbs. If no processor is available cut thick slices of crusty French or Italian bread (soft bread doesn’t work) and grate it by hand using the large holes of a hand grater.
Henry Schliff has been the chef of a French, Italian and Mexican restaurant, and was most recently the owner of the Orange Blossom Bakery in Buxton. He is the author of two cookbooks.