If you aspire to authenticity, you'll want to make your own confit tuna, a recipe that, for me, fills the void created by a congenital and perplexing allergy to tinned fish. It comes in jars now, but I still like to imbue a dense, potentially bland lump of fresh tuna with the soft texture and tasty richness of the tinned variety by casseroling it slowly in oil, spiked with dried chillies, bay leaves, coriander seeds and lemons. A fair amount of oil is needed to cover the fish, but it needn't be extra virgin – a more worldly one does the job for much less, and this is a good use for those whimsical bottles we all buy on impulse. About half an hour at 150°C/Gas 3 suffices for a 150g steak, which is then left in the oil to infuse for a few days. It makes a very fine salade Niçoise.
For the recipe that follows, though, grab a jar or tin of tuna from the kitchen cupboard, along with some decent olives and sun-dried tomatoes, smoked if possible (despite Sebastian Payne's comments in Last Word), to convey the effects of that despotic Sicilian sun on the produce of the island. Chilli-flavoured oil is the easiest way to achieve the all-important heat here, but strengths vary enormously, so add with caution. Assuming you have a running stock of garlic and lemons, and some mint in the garden, all you'll need to buy is a punnet of little tomatoes. Do make sure, though, that your stash of pine nuts is a fresh one, for the taste of stale ones pervades everything.
- 2 plump cloves of garlic, peeled
- a small pinch of whole salt crystals
- a generous mugful of fresh mint leaves, washed and dried
- a heaped tablespoon of pine nuts, lightly toasted and cooled
- about 4tbsp olive oil – a mixture of chilli flavoured and plain, to taste
- a juicy lemon
- a 225g jar or can of good-quality tuna in olive oil (drained weight about 150g)
- 8-10 smoked sun-dried tomatoes in oil, drained – save a tbsp of the oil,
- 200g spaghetti
- 12 baby plum tomatoes, washed and dried
- salt and black pepper
- fresh rocket to serve
Crush the garlic with a few salt crystals, and put into a blender (or use a pestle and mortar), along with the mint leaves and chop finely. Add half the toasted pine nuts and continue to process to a paste, adding enough of the flavoured and plain oils to make a thick, smooth pesto-like consistency, tasting as you go. Aim for as high a level of peppery heat as you can bear – the pasta absorbs a surprising amount of it. Finish with a squeeze of lemon juice. Drain the tuna well and flake into a large bowl. Add the sun-dried tomatoes, snipped into little pieces, and stir in the mint mixture. All this can be done well in advance.
While the pasta is cooking, preheat the grill. Toss the fresh tomatoes in the reserved oil from the tomato jar, season with salt and pepper and put into the pan, without the grid. Grill until collapsed and scorched here and there.
Drain the pasta, reserving a ladleful of the cooking water. Add to the bowl with the tuna, tomatoes and mint, and toss well, using a splash of the water, if necessary, to relax the mix and add a gloss. Turn into heated bowls and garnish with the grilled tomatoes, the remaining pine nuts and some fresh rocket. The dish will now be warm rather than piping hot, and all the better for that.
This dish goes equally well with a sprightly white, a gutsy rosé or a brooding red.
Janet Wynne Evans