Sicily has had a deeply significant relationship with tuna that goes back tens of centuries. This Sicilian tuna recipe brings out the best in tuna steaks – with chilies (peri-peri here, or another), olives, tomatoes, rosemary, oregano, and garlic. And some Marsala wine or medium sherry.
Apart from being a fish-lovers treat, what’s also great about this Sicilian tuna recipe is that it’s pretty quick and straightforward to make. And it’s best eaten when you are particularly hungry. This is a rich dish. I serve it with garlicky spinach, and it provides an excellent balancing contrast of both flavor and color.
Why be especially Sicilian with your tuna?
Well, Sicilians seriously understand this fish. And that in-depth knowledge can be summed up in one word: ‘mattanza.’
In Sicily, ‘mattanza’ – the slaughter – encapsulated the anciently-embedded, spring ritual of netting and killing schools of big tuna. For centuries past, ‘mattanza’ was a communal, religiously thanks-giving event that celebrated the harvesting and processing of an abundance of high protein food – the biggest tuna in all the world—Atlantic bluefin.
These are truly massive fish. A huge one can be well over 10 feet long and weigh 1,500 pounds or more. To see the Sicilian fishing experience (at least of the past), take a look at this documentary on a Sicilian fishery’s build-up to the mattanza.
So tuna is part of their heritage – part of their communal eating experience. Simply, you can trust they know what works to enhance the flavor of tuna in terms of spices and sides.
What type of tuna steaks will you find in stores?
Tragically, along with their ‘cousin,’ the Pacific bluefin, Atlantic bluefin tuna have been the victim of other countries’ relentless greed in the past few decades. Wild fish – as opposed to those that are ‘farmed’ – are regarded as the tuna for sashimi. That has not been a blessing for the bluefin.
The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) fears that continuous overfishing in the Mediterranean and elsewhere could see Atlantic bluefin being added to the sad list of creatures driven to extinction by man. In Sicily, the mattanza itself is already a thing of the past. The last one happened in 2007.
Add increasing scarcity to its increasingly sashimi-induced astronomical price, and the tuna steaks you buy from your fishmonger or store are unlikely to be bluefin. At my locally-renowned fishmonger, fresh tuna color – and prices – varied widely.
There were two types of frozen tuna steaks also on offer. One was a lighter maroon, pinker in color, the other was pinker still – almost like good fresh salmon. I bought four of those paler steaks at a wallet-friendly price. I asked in the shop what sort of tuna they were. Nobody from the busy, front-of-house staff knew. No matter. I’m guessing here, but it was probably cut from much more abundant, less threatened, skipjack, albacore, or yellowtail tuna.
Whichever it was, I received nothing but praise – and I mean high praise – for those comparatively inexpensive steaks from my two-person tasting-panel of fellow diners the following day. According to them, it was fab-tasting Sicilian tuna. And I agree. Enjoy it!
Sicilian Tuna Steaks In Spicy Sauce
- 4 tuna steaks each weighing close on 8 ounces
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 teaspoon ground sea salt
The Sicilian sauce
- 4 red African bird’s eye chilies (peri-peri) finely chopped, seeds and all
- 2 red bell peppers de-seeded and sliced lengthways into strips about ¼ of an inch wide
- 12 red cherry tomatoes cut into quarters – skins, seeds and all
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 can peeled tomatoes 14-ounce can, use juice and all
- 3 cloves garlic peeled and finely sliced
- 24 pitted black olives halved
- 3 bay leaves dried is fine
- 3 teaspoons fresh oregano if not fresh, use 1 heaped teaspoon of the dried variety
- 1 sprig fresh rosemary 4-inch sprig, if no fresh rosemary is at hand, use 1 level teaspoon dried rosemary
- 6 tablespoons medium dry sherry
- 1 teaspoon ground sea salt
- 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 1 teaspoon brown sugar
The spinach side dish
- 2 ½ pounds fresh spinach washed, drained – central white stalks removed.
- 3 cloves garlic finely sliced.
- 1½ ounces salted butter
- 1 teaspoon ground sea salt
Searing the tuna steaks – just a little, hot and fast
- Set a skillet pan big enough to hold all four steaks over a high heat with 2 tablespoons olive oil.
- As the oil is heating, sprinkle a level teaspoon of the ground sea salt over both sides of the tuna steaks – that’s one level teaspoon for all four steaks – not a teaspoon for each one.
- As soon as the oil starts smoking, cut the heat back to medium-high and add the tuna steaks. Let them sizzle away for two minutes, then turn them and cook for another two minutes. Turn off the heat and let the steaks sit in the skillet whilst you make the sauce.
Cooking the tuna’s sauce
- Heat three level tablespoons of olive oil in a medium-sized pot (that will take a lid) over medium heat. Add the sliced strips of red bell pepper, stir well to coat them with the olive oil and turn the heat down to low-medium. Cover the pot with its lid. The peppers need to soften, but not brown at all. So, keep them slowly cooking for 10 minutes with some regular stirring.
- Add the chopped cherry tomatoes, the sliced garlic, the sugar, and ground sea salt. Cook for another five minutes on that low-medium heat – stirring now and then – until the cherry tomatoes lose most of their body.
- Now add all the sauce’s remaining ingredients (including those chili peppers), stir it all together, and let the sauce gently simmer for another 10 minutes. Turn off the heat. Done.
Cooking the spinach
- Melt the butter in a medium-size pot over a low heat and add the sliced garlic and sea salt. Stir the pot and let the garlic release its flavor into the butter – about 3 minutes over a stirred low heat. The garlic must not brown.
- Add all of the spinach. It’ll be a bit of crush to get it into the pot – that’s ideal – pile it in and put the lid on. After two minutes, stir the spinach so that it all picks up a coating of the buttery garlic. Put the lid back on and let the spinach cook for another two minutes. Then stir the spinach again, put the lid back and let it cook for another two minutes. Turn off the heat and keep the lid on so the spinach retains its heat as you finish cooking the tuna in the sauce.
Bringing it all together
- Put the skillet with the seared, partly cooked tuna steaks onto a medium heat and pour the sauce over them. Lift the steaks a little so that they sit in the surrounding sauce as it heats. As soon as the sauce starts to bubble, turn the heat to low and let the steaks finish their cooking for about six minutes at a very gentle simmer in the sauce. They’ll then be ready to serve – straight from the skillet, with the emerald green spinach presented alongside.