Most cooks have in their repertoire a dish they rarely cook because it is a little too special, a little too time-consuming, demands expensive or just many individual ingredients. But sometimes this dish suddenly makes itself easy, half the ingredients are in the fridge, a good friend is coming round, the weather has hotted up enough to eat in the garden. Today this happened to me. The dish is vitello tonnato.
Vitello tonnato, a classic Italian dish of cold sliced veal with a tuna-flavoured mayonnaise sauce is something I rarely cook but I was reminded of it when I leafed through Skye Gyngell’s A Year in my Kitchen looking for inspiration for a supper for friends. I’m on a bit of a mayonnaise streak at the moment, having got a source of super-fresh eggs and excellent olive oil; I always have lemons and capers in the fridge and happened to have opened a jar of sublime Sicillian anchovies; then the organic box delivered French beans which made me think maybe salad niçoise, as I had black olives, but am supposed to be economising and fresh tuna is CRIPPLINGLY expensive (not to mention environmentally iffy, at least my can of Ortiz white tuna has good fishing credentials).
What swung it in the end was British veal being half price per kg at Wholefoods Market. Ok, confession, I actually bought osso bucco, cooked it then stripped it off the bone; I admit a slightly odd adaptation of vitello tonnato, which should have rosy fine slices to show off, but it was a third of the price of the veal rump I would otherwise have used and have specified in the recipe. And so supper was born, I’ll call it vitello tonnato because it is centred around the veal and tuna mayonnaise but there is a definite hybrid niçoise dish going on as I am using olives, beans and potatoes to serve with it.
Often summer presents me with a problem in that my favourite method of cooking is the slow braise. Why? Because it’s almost fool-proof. Unlike grilling, frying, even barbecuing where seconds either side can mean the difference between soft buttery meat and old shoe leather, long, slow cooking tenderises and can survive an hour extra of being forgotten about.
But braising usually means stews and casseroles, hearty winter dishes that put a fire in your belly and some warmth in your heart. But my whole body is already on fire, me being a delicate English creature (I won’t humiliate myself by saying ‘rose’) who thinks it’s a hot summer once the thermometer climbs past 23°c, and the last thing I want is a bowl of hot meat and gravy. So, back to my original point, even the weather is nudging me towards this smart supper; vitello tonnato calls for braised veal, but cooled and sliced and served in a salad. And that means, last tick for tonight, I can prepare it ahead of time and just assemble before we sit down to eat (by that time in the evening, kids wrestled into bed, glass of wine on an empty stomach and I am rendered incapable of cooking much accurately anyway).
Satisfyingly, as I’m on my local kick, this is one Mediterranean dish where most of the main ingredients are actually British, despite it’s Italian bent. The veal (now pink, humanely raised and enjoying a renaissance amongst ethical cooks) is British, the rocket comes from the garden, the egg yolks for the mayonnaise from local chickens and though I have included french beans from er, France (Riverford’s call, not mine this week!) our equivalent bobby beans will soon be harvested over here.
Of course that still leaves a lot of ingredients that are entirely imported, the piscine ones in particular: tuna and anchovies, but also olive oil and capers. But as the body of the dish is really the veal and I will serve it with English new potatoes I am giving it a moderate thumbs up on the local front and a resounding one for seasonality. And, for a special-occasion dish it has actually come in as quite economical too. My kind of cooking.
(Bear in mind when you look at the photo of this dish that I used osso bucco so had to pull chunks of veal off; it tasted great but a carefully-carved slice might look slightly better!)
Variations on a theme: Skye Gyngell uses tomato, olives and basil oil, I used green beans, olives and potato, as you can see the possibilities are as bountiful as the contents of your fridge.
Vitello Tonnato with green beans, new potatoes and olives. (Serves 4-6)
1kg topside or rump of free-range rose veal
2 sticks celery
3 bay leaves
splash of wine
light chicken stock or water
salt and pepper
Lightly season the veal then place in a heavy-based casserole with the vegetables, cut into large chunks and the herbs. Add enough stock/water to completely immerse the meat.
Bring to the boil then place in a 160°c oven for 2 hours or until the veal is tender (longer for on-the-bone cuts). Allow to cool in the stock to keep it moist.
Tuna Mayonnaise dressing
1 quantity of my lemon mayonnaise (click here for recipe but make it without salt)
1 x 115g tin fine tuna, well-drained
juice of 1 lemon (you may not need it all)
2 tbsp capers in salt, well rinsed and drained
3 fine anchovy fillets in oil, drained
Put the mayonnaise with the tuna, capers, anchovies and lemon into a processor and whiz to a smooth sauce – you may need to thin it with a little water. Adjust the seasoning, adding maybe a little more lemon and pepper; you are unlikely to need any salt as the capers and anchovies are so salty. Refrigerate until needed.
500 g french/bobby beans, topped and tailed
2tbsp small black olives
300g small new potatoes, scrubbed
Blanch the beans briefly, you want them crunchy, dress with a little olive oil. Boil the potatoes, allow to cool and half or quarter depending on their size.
Remove the veal from its stock and slice thinly.
Arrange a small pile of rocket, some beans, a few potatoes and slices of veal attractively on a plate then scatter some olives over. Finally spoon the tuna mayonnaise on top. Serve immediately with plenty of ground pepper.