Friday, July 23, 2010

Vitello tonnato, summer pot luck and other digressions

Remember how a few weeks ago I mentioned in one of my posts that tuna salad is not a staple summer dish here? In Italy, whose Mediterranean waters are renown for tuna fishing? Come on, I kept thinking, there has to be a summer dish with tuna in it...

That got me thinking about summer recipes in general and how they often differ from country to country. The concept of eating foods according to the seasons has never disappeared here (it is obvious why prosciutto&melon/figs and tomato & mozzarella are eaten in the summer). But a close Brazilian friend of mine and I are amused that there are some dishes Italians only eat certain times of the year, and God forbid you order them, make them or serve them at any other time!

A typical example of this is insalata di riso, a rice salad you serve cold with diced ingredients (typically pickled vegetables, olives, capers, frankfurters, tuna, ham, cheese). It is obviously considered a summer dish because it is served chilled but it rarely contains fresh ingredients and could easily be made any time of the year. But no, you only serve it in warm weather. And every family has their own version of it: some do not use pickles, others will only use fontina cheese and some leave out the capers. It is a common pot luck dish and when you are sitting around in a garden enjoying a serving of it you hear people saying: 'My mother's insalata di riso...'.
Another dish comes to mind, insalata russa or Russian salad. It is typically made with blanched, diced carrots, potatoes and peas. Some add pickles or tuna. The ingredients are mixed with mayonnaise and it is often served decorated with hard boiled eggs. Like insalata di riso, it is served cold. Hence, it is a summer dish. WRONG. It is usually served on holidays, typically at Christmas time. I could digress some more, but believe me, this post would become the longest one in history and it would lead to endless comments from Italians writing about out their family recipe or point of view on when and how to serve these dishes. I have had whole dinner conversation with women and men about this.

Going back to my original point, as I was thinking about tuna salad and summer recipes I came up with a typical Italian summer recipe made with tuna, vitello tonnato. It is also called vitel tonné and often thought to be of French origin but it is really an Italian dish, specifically from Piedmont. It is also often served at summer gatherings and brought as pot luck. I cannot deny that this has always freaked me out a little at picnics and BBQs and made me wonder, since the base of its sauce is mayonnaise. Most people, except perhaps the younger generations, make the mayonnaise at home, the real thing. No preservatives. So how could a dish with raw eggs in it become one of THE staple Italian summer dishes? I did some research and found out that the original recipe of the late 1800s does not use mayonnaise. What??? Not possible, that is the best part, what makes it luscious and creamy. The whole point of this dish is scooping up the lovely sauce with crusty bread... I told F over dinner and he was very sceptical. Was I sure I had found an authentic recipe? Uhm, yes dear, it was in Pellegrino Artusi's book (minus the eggs, which I used). He is the man who wrote one of the most notable Italian cook books of the 19th century.

I was so curious, I had to make it immediately the following evening. I only had some ready-sliced roast turkey breast (forgive me, Italian readers! I promise you all that the next time I will buy the veal and cook and prepare it myself) but I had all the ingredients for the sauce. Presto fatto as they say here! It was delicious and creamy and savory and we did not have a piece of bread or a smear of sauce left on our plates, despite the lack of mayo. And I guarantee, there won't be on yours either!

Ingredients for the sauce

6 anchovy filets
3 hard boiled eggs
100gr canned tuna (after draining the oil)
15 capers
a dash of balsamic vinegar (optional)

Ingredients for the meat

600 gr veal (a whole piece of eye round/round steak )
1/2 liter white wine (optional)
1 bay leaf
2 cloves of garlic
some pepper grains and cloves
1 stalk of celery
1 onion
1 carrot
2 tbsp olive oil
1 branch of rosemary
a pinch of salt

Place the veal, the herbs, the vegetables, the salt and the oil into a pot and then add the white wine and enough water for the liquid to almost (but not quite) cover the meat. Let it simmer over low heat for about an hour and a half. Let it cool in its cooking liquid.
In the meantime, put the tuna, the chopped hard boiled eggs, capers, anchovies into a bowl and blend with a hand mixer. Add some oil and stock from the meat to adjust in density. Once the meat has cooled, cut it into thin slices and lay them out on a platter. Cover the meat with the sauce, decorate with some capers and put in the fridge to chill for a few hourse before serving. Make sure you have lots of crunchy, country bread to it serve with.


  1. Vitel tonnè is such a funny mock-French Italian invention :)
    I used to love it in my former life as a meat-eater :)
    Have a nice week, amica ;)


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