WHEN I WAS a kid, I put sugar on everything. I sprinkled it on my cereal. I spooned it into my iced tea. It was even in the salad dressing my mom made.
Now that I am older, or, as my kids would say, bordering on being a geezer, simple sweetness doesn't impress me the way it used to.
Now I like the bitter with the sweet. So the other day when paging through a new cookbook, "David Ruggerio's Italian Kitchen," I saw a recipe for sweet and sour tuna, and was intrigued.
Even in my sugar-on-the-salad days, I had never considered putting sugar on tuna. But according to Ruggerio, this is an established practice in Sicily. Moreover, the Sicilian tuna that is sweetened with sugar is exceptionally fresh stuff. This is not an effort to dress up the taste of canned tuna. Rather, it is a treatment applied to fresh tuna steaks.
It seems that tuna hang out on a steep underwater shelf on the Sicilian coastline, Ruggerio explained. They are caught in an ancient ritual called the tonnara. Basically, fishermen in wooden boats surround the tuna, lower their nets and herd big tuna into a series of chambers, he writes. Then, the fishermen gaff the 200-pound tuna, haul them into their wooden boats and dispatch them.
As they row their boats into position, the Sicilian fishermen sing sea chanteys, he said.
It sounded quite colorful but also a bit primitive. While I would love to go out in a wooden boat and sing, I don't like the idea of sharing space with a 200-pound tuna. I prefer to get my tuna in the already-caught, and already-cut-into-steaks, condition.
So I went to the market and bought tuna steaks. Then I cooked onions in olive oil, sprinkled the tuna steaks with flour and seared them over high heat. Next, I removed them from the pan. I made a sauce with sugar, vinegar and white wine, and tossed the seared tuna back in the pan, cooking them with the warm sauce.
The tuna steaks tasted so good I immediately began singing sea chanteys, sweet ones.
Sweet and sour tuna
2 1/2 pounds fresh tuna steaks, 1/2 -inch thick
1/4 cup olive oil
2 medium onions, peeled and thinly sliced
salt and freshly ground black pepper
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons granulated sugar
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1/3 cup dry white wine
2 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley
Over medium heat, place a skillet large enough to hold all the tuna steaks in one layer. Add 2 tablespoons of olive oil, the sliced onions and salt and pepper to taste. Cook the onions for about 8 to 9 minutes or until they are wilted and golden brown. Remove the onions from the pan and keep them warm.
Add 2 more tablespoons of the olive oil to the same pan and increase the heat to high. Season the tuna steaks with salt and pepper and lightly flour them on both sides. Sear the tuna steaks for 2 minutes on each side, then remove then from the pan.
Add the sugar, vinegar, wine and cooked onions to the pan. Cook uncovered over medium heat for about 2 minutes. Add the parsley and the tuna steaks and cook for another 2 minutes. Remove the tuna to a warm platter and pour the pan juices on the top, and serve.
-- From "David Ruggerio's Italian Kitchen" (Artisan Books, 2000)