RECIPE: Lois’ seared tuna birthday dinner

Seared ahi tuna with coconut rice and fiddlehead ferns. Photo: Bob Luhmann

Every year, when it comes around to Lois’ birthday, I never have to ask what she’d like for her birthday dinner. Seared tuna is always on the menu. Having been together for 15 years, that means I’ve tried many different preparations just for her birthday alone. Some have been successful and some not.

One of the preparations I’ve not mastered is an olive oil poached tuna, which Lois especially loved when she ordered it while dining at Blue Heron Restaurant & Catering in Sunderland, Massachusetts. The restaurant is owned by Deborah Snow and Barbara White, with Executive Chef Justin Mosher leading the kitchen. They’re 2022 James Beard Foundation Award semifinalists, so replicating their dish to my satisfaction was a high bar to clear. Rather than continue to chase mastery of their wonderful dish, I chose to sear tuna more traditionally this year.

Giant yellowfin tuna. Photo courtesy

First, let’s talk a bit about tuna.

There are several species of tuna, including skipjack, albacore, yellowfin, bluefin, and bigeye. When taking all these species together, tuna is the most consumed fish in the world. It can also be the most expensive. The record price was $ 3 million for what was deemed a perfect 600-pound bluefin tuna in 2019. The tuna species used most for searing and sushi are yellowfin, otherwise known as ahi, and bluefin. Ahi tuna is leaner and milder with a lighter flavor, while bluefin is richer and fuller flavored with the fattiest flesh of all tuna varieties. Ahi tuna are comparatively smaller than bluefin, with a top weight of 400–500 pounds, while bluefin can top out at about 1,500 pounds. Having done my share of saltwater fishing, I can’t imagine what it would be like to land even a smaller yellowfin tuna.

Next, there are issues to consider when preparing seared tuna. Seared tuna is essentially raw, which can lead to problems if not purchased carefully, handled correctly, or eaten in moderation. Being a predator at the top of the food chain – consuming smaller fish contaminated with varying amounts of mercury – tuna’s mercury levels are high. Tuna is also susceptible to parasites which can cause food-borne illness. Because of these issues, children, women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, and those who are immunocompromised should avoid raw tuna. The FDA recommends eating no more than 6 ounces of tuna steaks per week for healthy adults. This is not a problem for me, as sushi-grade bluefin tuna steaks usually retail for $ 30 or more per pound!

World record bluefin tuna. Photo courtesy

On the plus side, in addition to being luxuriously delicious, tuna is extremely nutritious. It’s packed with lean protein, and what we’re looking for when seeking to lose weight. A 6-ounce portion of ahi tuna contains 35 grams of protein, 2 grams of fat, and 94 calories. It’s an excellent source of iron, potassium, vitamin D, and vitamin B12, which helps form red blood cells preventing anemia. It’s also an excellent source of selenium, a trace mineral that acts as an antioxidant. Eating tuna contributes to lowering the risk of heart disease because its high level of omega-3 fatty acids help reduce LDL cholesterol, the bad cholesterol.

Whether fresh or frozen, purchasing sushi-grade tuna is important, as it means it’s been judged safe to be eaten raw. With all this information in mind, we happily have sushi-grade seared tuna as an occasional luxury, and I’m careful about where I purchase it. I prepare it as soon after I’ve either thawed my center-cut saku block ahi tuna from Wild Fork Foods in the refrigerator for two days, or prepare it the day I purchase it from my favorite local fish vendor, Mazzeo’s in Guido’s Fresh Marketplace. In speaking with Mazzeo’s fish department, they stressed their fresh bluefin tuna is sushi grade and completely additive and chemical free, unlike many frozen tuna steaks which have been treated with preservatives.

Lois’ Seared Tuna Birthday Meal
(Serves 2)

So many recipes claim to be quick and easy, but this really is. It’s my version of Tuna Tataki which, instead of using all sesame seeds, I use half sesame seeds and half mustard seeds, giving it a bit more zip. I particularly love the crunch of the seeds contrasting with the rich tuna. If you’re not familiar with ponzu sauce, it’s a citrus flavored soy sauce-based dressing readily available in most grocery stores.

I served the tuna over a bed of jasmine rice made with coconut milk, which I finished with chopped cilantro. This coconut rice recipe is a stickier, cooktop version, while this recipe is a fluffier Instant Pot version. It’s all a matter of taste; you may have a favorite of your own and there are countless other recipes to be found online. Alongside the tuna and coconut rice, I served steamed and buttered fiddlehead ferns because we love their asparagus-like flavor, and I’d just plucked my first batch of the season.

Any leftover seared tuna can be used the next day to make summer rolls: chill the seared tuna, slice it thinner, and use it for summer rolls as a wonderful addition for a picnic with friends. Tanglewood anyone? Here’s a YouTube video with basic instructions for putting together summer rolls.

Seared tuna summer roll with coconut rice, mint, cilantro and julienned vegetables. Photo: Bob Luhmann

(2) 6-ounce sushi-grade tuna steaks
1 cup ponzu sauce, divided
To cup toasted sesame oil
Bl Tbl peeled and grated fresh ginger
2 Tbl black mustard seeds
2 Tbl raw sesame seeds
½ cup high heat oil such as grapeseed, sesame, avocado or peanut

Whisk together ½ cup of the ponzu sauce with the toasted sesame oil and pour it into a nonmetallic container large enough to hold the tuna. Place the tuna in this marinade, making sure both sides are coated, and refrigerate for an hour or two.

Discard the marinade and spread the sesame seeds and mustard seeds on a plate. Firmly press the tuna steaks into the seeds on both sides and refrigerate for an additional ½ hour or so to allow the seeds to adhere.

Heat the oil in a heavy-duty sauté pan or cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat until it just begins to smoke. Sear the tuna between 30–45 seconds per side.

Slice the tuna into approximately ¼-incg slices and serve with the remaining ¼ cup of ponzu sauce mixed with the grated ginger for dipping.

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