Anna, Jane, Elizabeth, Madhur, Alastair, Colin, Delia, Nigel, Mary, Simon, Nigella, Sophie, Josceline, the Ladies of the Yorkshire WI: when I return to my parents’ house, coming back to Mum’s cookbooks is like walking into a room of incredibly familiar people, all of whom look a bit odd, older and, in a few cases, fallen apart.
This wasn’t always the way; these were the books I grew up with, as familiar as the plates we still eat off. I was raised with Jane and Josceline wide open on the counter and providing good advice and good meals in the best and worst of times. These were the books I stared at wondering why there were not more photos, that showed me how to write about food long before I ever thought of doing it. When I left home, swearing that I would do everything differently, I bought myself copies of pretty much every book on Mum’s shelves. But they were later editions, often with different covers and indexes, which have received different folds and strains. So when I go back, Mum’s copies, with their broken spines and different traces of sauce, seem both familiar and odd, a bit like home itself when the adult child returns.
These days, I like walking into familiar rooms; after all, I am getting older too. Recipe-checking is my work now, but it is still a pleasure, pulling not just books but people from the shelf, and asking them a question I possibly know the answer to: “Anna, Alastair and Elizabeth, remind me how you make tonnato?”
The Italian food writer Anna Del Conte describes her mother’s Milanese tonnato (tonnè), which is served with veal, as being an elegant beige sauce made with tuna, anchovies, cream, lemon and then some of the veal cooking stock. It is a superb recipe for a richly flavoured sauce. I have made it many times, each time enjoying the story above the recipe: Anna’s mother’s joy at finding veal in post-war Milan, then the stumble, and the dish being dropped on the floor, the beige mess on the carpet, and her aunt’s cry that it was too good to waste, and that she would eat it anyway.
In the neighbouring region of Piedmont, they make tonnato with olive-oil mayonnaise, clearly inspiration for Elizabeth David’s version in her book, Italian Food: “Make a stiff mayonnaise with two egg yolks, a little salt, 100ml of olive oil and a very little lemon” – she notes it should be a jelly-like substance that sticks to the spoon and falls with a delicious plop on to the plate – “then mix it with 50g of tinned tunny fish”. When and why did we stop saying “tunny”?
Alastair Little and Ed Smith’s versions are somewhere between Milan and Piedmont, but more straightforward than both in that you are not required to make a stock or mayonnaise: simply blend everything in a food processor or an immersion blender.
Tonnato is synonymous with veal, for the dish vitello tonnato. The idea of combining meat and tuna sauce might sound odd, but it works well – very well. Tonnato is also a match for chicken, turkey and, best of all, soft, hard-boiled eggs and floppy butterhead lettuce.
Elizabeth David suggests using her mayonnaise tonnato to fill tomato halves, but it is Ed Smith who suggests serving slices of tomato on tonnato and topping it with capers. Rounds of red on a butter-coloured sauce look wonderful. It is also one of those beaming combinations – after all, tomatoes love tuna, anchovies and eggs, so are absolutely at home with the sleek sauce, the capers adding little bullets of salt. Thank you Anna, Alastair, Ed and Elizabeth, you are all looking well.
Tonnato (tuna and anchovy sauce)
Tuna and anchovy are never shy – this is a rich, fishy sauce – but the egg and olive-oil emulsion provide the real body of this tonnato, while lemon and dijon sharpen the edges.
Prep 10 min
2 anchovy fillets
160g tinned tuna (120g drained weight)
1 garlic clove, peeled
Juice of half a lemon
1 egg plus an extra yolk
1 small handful parsley leaves
1 tsp dijon mustard
150ml olive oil
Salt and pepper, to season
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Put all the ingredients, except the oil and seasoning, into a food processor or a bowl suitable for an immersion blender, and pulse until smooth.
While pulsing, add the oil, bit by bit, then blend until smooth. The consistency should be loose, but not runny – somewhere between single and double cream. Taste and add more lemon juice, salt and pepper, as needed.
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