One of my favorite warm-weather dishes is the Italian classic vitello tonnato. The dish has its origins in the Piedmont region, which is surrounded on three sides by the Alps. But it was a Tuscan who introduced me to this wonderful dish of thinly sliced veal, or vitello, served in a sauce flavored with tuna, or tonnato.
When I was the executive chef at Le Cirque, the cuisine may have been French, but the owner, Sirio Maccioni, was Italian through and through. His wife, Egidiana, who is a wonderful cook, guided me in preparing proper Italian lunches for her husband to enjoy behind the scenes, including vitello tonnato. I love the combination of the delicate veal with the pungent sauce, which contains anchovies as well as tuna, lending a note of umami to the dish.
I also like to nourish the dish with flavor and freshness, adding a touch of Dijon to the sauce and incorporating such crudités as celery, sliced radishes, cucumbers, or cherry tomatoes. It's a perfect entrée for a summer lunch or buffet because it is prepared in advance and served at room temperature, so there is little to do once your guests arrive—other than pour the wine.
WHAT TO DRINK
"This is a challenging dish," says Raj Vaidya, head sommelier of Daniel restaurant. "The tender veal calls for red wine, but the briny tuna and anchovies require something light." He suggests Combe Trousseau from Stolpman Vineyards in Ballard Canyon, California ($29). "This red is made from a grape variety from eastern France that has a light body, aromatic complexity, and plenty of fresh acidity and pepperiness." An alternative would be Crémant de Jura Rosé ($24), a sparkling rosé from Bénédicte et Stéphane Tissot. "It's fruity, yet dry on the palate," says Vaidya.
2 egg yolks
2 tsp. Dijon mustard
1 7-oz. can or jar of good-quality tuna packed in oil, drained
12-15 salted anchovy fillets in oil
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
2 T capers in brine, 1 tsp. set aside
2 cups grapeseed oil
Juice of one 1 lemon or 2 T white wine vinegar
3 stalks of celery, leaves from entire bunch
1½ lb. veal cutlets, approximately 1 inch thick
Freshly ground black pepper
2 T olive oil
2 T chopped parsley
In a blender, combine the egg yolks, mustard, half the tuna, half the anchovies, garlic, and 2 tablespoons of the capers; puree on medium until just combined but still chunky. With the blender running on low, slowly add the grapeseed oil in a steady stream until the sauce has the consistency of mayonnaise. Add the lemon juice or white wine vinegar and taste for seasoning. Add a pinch of salt or more lemon juice or vinegar, if desired. Transfer to a container and keep refrigerated until ready to serve.
Bring 1 quart of water to a boil and season generously with salt. Cut the stalks of celery into 1-inch pieces and add to the boiling water; cook for 1 minute. Prepare a bowl of ice water and, with a slotted spoon, transfer the celery to the ice water for three minutes. Drain the celery and set it aside.
Season the veal with salt and black pepper on both sides. In a medium sauté pan, warm the olive oil over medium heat, then sear the veal for 30 seconds to 1 minute on each side, depending on thickness. Remove the veal from the pan and set aside to cool slightly; thinly slice against the grain.
To serve, spread the sauce on the bottom of a plate. Fold the veal slices in half and lay them on top of the sauce in a circle, with one piece in the center. Garnish with the remaining tuna, anchovies, and capers. Sprinkle celery leaves and parsley on top.
Add fresh color and texture to this dish with peppery radishes. Simply shave the radishes thinly, preferably on a Japanese mandoline, and keep them in cold water for a few minutes so they stay crunchy. A garnish of small, ripe tomatoes can add more color and a burst of sweetness. I recommend the grape or cherry tomatoes on the vine that are so abundant in late summer—just slice them in half and scatter over the top. Chopped black olives also work well with the briny capers and salty anchovies.