Fresh Tuna with Green Olives, Capers, Celery, and Mint

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Preparation info

  • Difficulty

    Medium

  • Serves

    4

Appears in

The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen

By Paula Wolfert

Published 2003

  • About

A. few years ago, on a visit to Sicily, I was invited for dinner at the home of Giuseppe and Julia di’Martino, who moved to the island forty years ago. After we finished a series of pastas, platters of local dishes were brought out, among them the Siracusan specialty, stimperata, a beautifully cooked slab of tuna smothered in a sweet-and-sour blend of capers, olives, mint, celery, sugar, and vinegar.

The word stimperata derives from the Latin temperare, meaning “to mix properly or regulate.” It thus reflects that “Greek spirit of temperance” that had originally drawn the di’Martino family to southeastern Sicily.

Their son, Adolfo, now the owner-chef of the Green Gables Inn on the New Jersey shore, told me that all recipes for stimperata are the same “because once a perfect balance is achieved, there’s no point in changing it. You must be very accurate about ingredient amounts and sizes so that everything will come out evenly, fully cooked at the same time. Also important is a long mellowing of the ingredients.”

Adolfo paused, then he smiled. “But actually there’s more to it. There’s the tempering.” He was referring to the addition of just the right amount of water to dilute the dish judiciously . . . but not too much. “God save us from a too watery stimperata!” he added.

Listening to him, I was reminded of the “Temperance” card in the tarot pack. The traditional image of Temperance is a woman pouring water from one vessel to dilute wine in another.

“Yes, that’s it!” Adolfo said. “Add just enough water to temper the dish. Temperance— that’s the key to stimperata—and to the Sicilian way of life.”

This succulent dish actually cooks fairly quickly, but the secret to its depth of flavor is in letting it stand for several hours, or preferably overnight.

Ingredients

  • pounds fresh yellowfin or bluefin tuna steak, about 1 inch thick
  • Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
  • Flour, for dusting
  • 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
  • ½ cup thinly sliced tender celery
  • 18 green Sicilian-style olives, blanched 1 minute, drained, pitted, and quartered
  • 3 tablespoons salted capers, rinsed and drained
  • 3 tablespoons yellow raisins, soaked for 5 minutes in warm water and drained
  • 3 tablespoons white wine vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons minced fresh mint, for garnish

Method

  1. Rinse the tuna and pat dry Season lightly with salt and pepper and dust with flour. In a medium nonstick skillet, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the tuna and quickly sear on both sides, about 1 minute to a side. Transfer the tuna to a plate.
  2. Reduce the heat to medium. Add the garlic and celery and cook until the garlic is golden and the celery tender, about 1½. minutes. Add the olives, capers, and raisins and cook, stirring, for another minute, or until lightly glazed but not browned.
  3. Return the tuna to the pan; sprinkle with the vinegar, about 2 tablespoons water, and salt and pepper. Baste the tuna with the skillet juices, cover, and cook until almost done to taste, about 1 more minute. Glide the tuna onto a shallow serving dish and pour the pan juices with the olives, capers, and raisins over the fish. Refrigerate for at least 4 hours, and preferably overnight. Garnish with mint leaves and serve at room temperature.