Tonnato - not what it used to be

"It’s like that Dr. Seuss book everyone gets when they graduate—Oh the Places You’ll Go!—but for a mayo-based sauce. Inspiring." Alex Beggs/Bon Appétit

This is what Tonnato sauce is supposed to be used for - Vitello tonnato - a classic Italian dish whereby thin cooked veal slices are coated with a creamy sauce made with tuna. The version shown here is as classic as you can get probably, as it is from Guy Grossi, who remembers it as a favourite dish of his Northern Italian mother. It's a slightly weird combination is it not, and not one I have ever tried I have to admit, but everyone seems to think it's a match made in heaven, although nobody seems to have an origin story. The closest I came to it was this explanation from Guy Grossi:


"It's not clear where the idea came from to steep sliced veal in tuna sauce, but it may have been born of the Italian mentality of using up leftovers by turning them into something else. It could well have been that leftover veal and canned tuna was all some clever cook had on hand at the time. And out came vitello tonnato."


But this post is not about Vitello tonnato. It's actually a lucky dip post and the recipe is for chicken tonnato in Delia's controversial book How to Cheat at Cooking. She copped a lot of criticism for the book because she named products, although she said she did not get any kickbacks from the makers of the products. And, I for one, believe her.


Her 'mission statement' was as follows:


"What's on offer here is a way forward - first for those who are afraid to cook, and secondly, for those who are short of time. Cooking does not belong exclusively to professional chefs (TV or otherwise). Home cooking always has been, and always will be something different and, if you short-circuit some of the accepted rules of cooking and are willing to explore alternatives by adding the cheating element, you can discover a better and easier way of coping when there's not much available time."


What is interesting is that even Chefs, with a capital C such as Ottolenghi - sometimes use shortcuts and ready-made stuff. It's an increasingly common theme. They may not actually mention a particular product, but they certainly urge you to use frozen this and precooked that at times. COVID only heightened that. I do admit I have not made much from this book, mostly because sometimes the specific product mentioned is just not available here. Mostly, of course, we have similar products, but occasionally not. And the recipes are interesting too. So today I chose to look at her chicken tonnato. Alas it's not online. I don't know whether she was completely bruised by the criticism she received but she does not have the recipe on her website - and most of her recipes are. In this case the shortcut ingredients are ready cooked chicken breasts, tinned tuna, mayonnaise, capers and anchovies. Well the capers and anchovies are always canned and a large number of recipes for this dish use tinned tuna in oil - even Elizabeth David. And if you're that fussy you could always make your own mayonnaise. Guy Grossi, of course, talks about using his own 'house-preserved tuna', but he gives the nod to tinned tuna - as long as it is good quality of course. As to mayonnaise:


"Some versions I've seen use mayonnaise, but this is not traditional, and if the sauce is made right you won't need to add it." Guy Grossi


Which I find a little bit surprising because virtually every recipe I found used mayonnaise.


But back to Delia. Ingredients - 2 ready-cooked chicken breasts; 50g best-quality tuna from a tin or jar; 3 anchovy fillets in olive oil; 1 1/2 tablespoons capers, rinsed and drained; 1 teaspoon lemon juice; lemon slices to serve. Method - Blend in a mini chopper - the mayonnaise, drained tuna, 1 anchovy fillet and 1 tablespoon of capers. When smooth add 3 tablespoons cold water and whiz again. Season with lemon juice and black pepper. Slice chicken breasts thinly. Arrange and spoon sauce over. Garnish with remaining anchovy fillets, rest of the capers and lemon slices. Voilà - done. Pretty simple. And honestly, most of the recipes I found were pretty simple too. Guy Grossi was a bit more complicated, but then he was starting from scratch and he had to cook the veal.


Delia's recipe is a very small change, and as I began to search the net, a not uncommon one. Pollo tonnato seems to be a pretty standard thing. Not in Elizabeth David's day though. I don't think you would have found many variations back then. For those were the days when we were rediscovering the originals - the Vitello tonnato itself. We had to familiarise ourselves with all of those things before we became bored and started inventing variations. Initially the steps were tentative - chicken or turkey instead of the veal: Chicken tonnato from delicious. - I think a Valli Little recipe or one step further Turkey tonnato from Jamie and one step further again Chicken tonnato salad from Adam Liaw. Or is it a step further - because it actually looks much like the delicious. version?

Nowadays though it's all about vegetables, with ever more imaginative takes on the theme, but let's begin with tomatoes which seem to be an obvious sort of match - sauce on top from Helen Rosner's Tomato tonnato in the New Yorker; or sauce underneath with Rachel Roddy's Tomatoes on tonnato sauce. Top notch tomatoes of course.

Ottolenghi also has a tonnato sauce which he uses two ways: Jacket potatoes with egg and tonnato sauce (lots of people thought hard-boiled eggs were a good match) and Grilled cauliflower steaks with tonnato sauce and walnut salsa - imaginative as always, and in the process he inspires a fan - Greg Henry of the blog SippetySup to experiment with radicchio in his Grilled Treviso with tonnato sauce and potatoes

Then there's the greens: Charred green beans with spicy tonnato from Rick Martinez at Bon Appétit; Charred broccoli with tonnato, pecorino, lemon and chiles from Joshua McFadden and perhaps the most unexpected Brussels sprouts with tonnato sauce from Nick Balla and Cortney Burns.

Elsewhere I saw it being used as a dip, in sandwiches, on toast with other things on top - well it's obviously versatile and I should have a go.


So yes - it's evolved. Well I guess that's not quite correct. The sauce has not evolved that much - the elements of that remain fundamentally the same - it's just the way it's used.


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