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RECIPE: Lois’ Seared Tuna Birthday Dinner

RECIPE: Lois' Seared Tuna Birthday Dinner

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

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

One of the preparations I haven’t mastered is a tuna poached in olive oil, which Lois loved when she ordered it for dinner in Blue Heron Restaurant & Catering in Sunderland, Massachusetts. The restaurant is owned by Deborah Snow and Barbara White, with Chef Justin Mosher directing the kitchen. They are the semifinalists of the James Beard Foundation Award 2022, so replicating their dish to my satisfaction has been a high bar. Rather than continue mastering their delicious dish, I chose to sear tuna more traditionally this year.

Giant yellowfin tuna. Photo Courtesy of concordhotels.com

Let’s talk about tuna first.

There are several varieties of tuna, including skipjack, albacore, yellowfin, bluefin, and bigeye tuna. If we take 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 considered a perfect 600-pound bluefin tuna in 2019. The tuna most commonly used for searing and sushi are yellowfin tuna, also known as ahi, and bluefin tuna. Ahi tuna is leaner and milder with a lighter flavor, while bluefin tuna is richer and fuller in flavor with the fattest meat of any tuna. Ahi tuna is relatively smaller than bluefin tuna, with a top weight of 400-500 pounds, while bluefin tuna can be around 1,500 pounds. Now that I’ve done my share of saltwater fishing, I can’t imagine what it would be like to land even a smaller yellowfin tuna.

Then there are things to consider when preparing yellowfin tuna. Seared tuna is essentially raw, which can lead to problems if not purchased carefully, handled properly, or eaten in moderation. As a predator at the top of the food chain — consuming smaller fish contaminated with varying amounts of mercury — tuna’s mercury content is high. Tuna is also susceptible to parasites that can cause foodborne 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 cost $30 or more per pound!

World record bluefin tuna. Photo courtesy of marlinmag.com

On the plus side, tuna is not only luxuriously tasty, but also extremely nutritious. It is packed with lean protein which is what we look for when we want to lose weight. A 6-ounce serving of ahi tuna contains 35 grams of protein, 2 grams of fat and 94 calories. It is an excellent source of iron, potassium, vitamin D and vitamin B12, which help form red blood cells to prevent anemia. It is also an excellent source of selenium, a trace mineral that acts as an antioxidant. Eating tuna contributes to lowering the risk of heart disease, as its high content of omega-3 fatty acids helps lower LDL cholesterol, the bad cholesterol.

Whether fresh or frozen, buying sushi-grade tuna is important because it means it’s safe to eat raw. With all this information in mind, we like to have sushi-grade fried tuna as an occasional luxury, and I’m careful where I buy it. I prepare it as soon as possible after thawing my saku block of ahi tuna from the center Wild Fork Food refrigerate for two days, or prepare it the day I buy it from my favorite local fishmonger, mazzeos at Guido’s fresh market. Speaking to Mazzeo’s seafood department, they emphasized that their fresh bluefin tuna is sushi grade and completely free of additives and chemicals, unlike many frozen tuna steaks that have been treated with preservatives.

Lois’ Seared Tuna Birthday Meal
(2 persons)

So many recipes claim to be quick and easy, but this one really is. It’s my version of Tuna Tataki which, instead of using all the sesame seeds, uses half sesame seeds and half mustard seeds, which gives it a little more spice. I especially like the crunchiness of the seeds in contrast to the rich tuna. If you are unfamiliar with ponzu sauce, it is a citrus-flavored soy sauce dressing that is readily available in most grocery stores.

I served the tuna on a bed of jasmine rice made with coconut milk, which I finished with chopped coriander. This coconut rice recipe is a stickier, stovetop 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 tons of other recipes to be found online. In addition to the tuna and coconut rice, I served steamed and buttered fiddlehead ferns because we love their asparagus-like flavor, and I had just picked my first batch of the season.

Any leftover seared tuna can be used the next day to make summer sandwiches: let the seared tuna cool, cut it thinner and use it for summer sandwiches as a wonderful addition to a picnic with friends. Tanglewood anyone? Here is a youtube video with basic instructions for assembling summer rolls.

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

Ingredients:
(2) 6-ounce sushi-grade tuna steaks
1 cup ponzu sauce, divided
¼ cup toasted sesame oil
½ Tbl peeled and grated fresh ginger
2 tbsp black mustard seeds
2 tbsp raw sesame seeds
½ cup high-heated oil such as grapeseed, sesame, avocado, or peanut

Preparation:
Whisk ½ cup of the ponzu sauce together with the toasted sesame oil and pour into a non-metallic container large enough to hold the tuna. Place the tuna in this marinade, making sure to coat both sides, and refrigerate for an hour or two.

Discard the marinade and divide the sesame seeds and mustard seeds on a plate. Press the tuna steaks firmly into the seeds on both sides and refrigerate for another hour to allow the seeds to adhere.

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

Cut the tuna into about ¼ inch slices and serve with the remaining ½ cup of ponzu sauce mixed with the grated ginger for dipping.