When summer squash (zucchini; courgettes), eggplant (aubergines), tomatoes (tomatoes) and peppers are at the apex of ripeness, it’s hard not to think of Provençal-type vegetable stews fragrant with olive oil, onions, garlic and herbs. Let’s call them ratatouille, though that will expose us to outraged criticism by people with strong (though differing) opinions about the precise use of that term. Anyway, I’m not going to tell you how to make ratatouille: Open up a cookbook or a Web browser and you’ll soon have a nice recipe. Just be sure to use plenty of good oil and to cook your onions long enough to rid them of harshness.
Whatever recipe you use, and no matter how small you try to keep the quantities, you will surely have leftovers, and leftover ratatouille is a wonderful thing. At room temperature, deposited onto grilled bread, it is one of the best of summer dinners. Even a little bit can be eked out with pasta, or reheated with scrambled eggs – or simmered down with extra oil and some smoked paprika to form a sofrito as the underlay of a not-so-traditional paella.
But when we saw some really nice tuna at the farmers’ market, Jackie and I simultaneously thought how good it would be with the last of our leftover ratatouille from a few days earlier. In Mediterranean mode, it would not be served rare, much less raw in the center: For maximal flavor, it would be cooked though, but cooked with care so that it would not become dry, and once it was lightly browned it would braise gently in that oily, juicy ratatouille with just a splash of wine to add acidity and another layer of flavor.
It worked just as planned – as, I confess, we knew it would, because this is a dish we eat almost every summer, sometimes replacing the tuna with swordfish.
So next time you make a panful of ratatouille, throw in an extra few handfuls of vegetables to guarantee that there will be enough left over for this fish dinner.
- A 1-inch-thick tuna steak – 8 to 10 oz should suffice for two portions, but feel free to use a larger piece if you have a keen appetite
- Extra-virgin olive oil to coat the cooking surface of a 9- or 10-inch skillet
- 1/4 Cup white wine
- 1-1/2 cups ratatouille or similar summer-vegetable stew
- 1/3 Cup chopped parsley (approximately)
- 1 Teaspoon chopped fresh thyme leaves
- Optional: a handful of pitted olives, halved
- Salt and black pepper
Trim the tuna if necessary; pat it dry and season it with salt and pepper. Heat the oil in a 9- or 10-inch skillet over medium-high heat. Add the tuna and cook 2 minutes on each side, until lightly browned.
Off the heat (to minimize splattering), add the wine; return to the heat and cook until the wine no longer smells raw, 15 to 30 seconds.
Add the ratatouille, distributing it around the fish; lift the fish with a spatula to allow a little of the juices to slip underneath too. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook for about 4 minutes, partially covered. Start checking for doneness after 3 minutes: pierce the fish with a cake tester or thin toothpick; for tuna that is cooked through but still moist, catch it at the moment when the cake tester meets little resistance as it enters.
Remove the fish to a plate or cutting board and cut it into two portions. If you find it underdone (which, truth to tell, would be no sin, though not my preference in a dish like this) return the fish to the simmering ratatouille for another minute or so.
Check the ratatouille (which is now your sauce) for seasoning and stir in the parsley and thyme, and the olives if you’re using them. Divide the mixture between two warmed plates and set a portion of fish atop each. You can finish the fish itself with a sprinkling of crunchy sea salt if you like. Corn pancakes are a good accompaniment; you can make them in advance and reheat them in a skillet or in the oven. Steamed new potatoes (simply salted, with no butter or oil) would be lovely too.