Watermelon and Tuna Crudo
A wild-eyed, white-haired old scientist steps out a smoking Delorean and looks around in order to get his bearings. A consummate time-traveller, he quickly attempts to ascertain where – or more accurately when – he has arrived. Trying to gauge what decade he’s landed in, he heads to the nearest fine dining establishment. He glances at the menu in search of something. What exactly? “Raw fish!” The man calls out in his unmistakable, wobbling inflection. Will he draw the puzzled stares of a mid-20th century crowd as he asks for salmon sashimi? Will he be rewarded with a carefully constructed mid-1980s tuna tartare? Or will he find himself firmly in the 21st century, surrounded by a bewildering assortment of pokes, ceviches, carpaccios, and crudos?
Raw fish has undergone a complete 180 in the Western world as interest in global food culture has grown. North American (and some European) generations past may have balked at the notion eating fish untouched by heat, but fishing cultures around the world have long known that you don’t really need to do anything to a good, fresh piece of fish in order to craft a tasty meal. Raw fish, when as fresh as can be managed, speaks for itself, and modern diners simply can’t get enough. How exactly the West has embraced this attitude is not something I fully understand, but I would hazard a guess that the ubiquity of sushi coupled with the long-standing popularity of European raw red meat dishes (e.g. beef carpaccio and steak tartare) had something to do with it, but I have another thought that I’ll get into a little later. Regardless of the cause, we find ourselves smack in the middle of a food culture that’s obsessed with new and exciting ways to eat uncooked seafood. Sashimi and ceviche have had their moments in the sun (but, you know, don’t leave them in the sun), and trendy restaurants and their adventurous clientele are increasingly turning towards Hawaiian poke and Italian crudo for their raw fish fix.
Italian pesce crudo (literally ‘raw fish’) is often explained by way of a reference to sashimi. The comparison is somewhat unfair, however; while the two dishes share an emphasis on fresh, high quality raw fish, they are nonetheless exceptionally different dishes. Sashimi is primarily focused on presenting painstakingly prepared and stunningly fresh fish with minimal accompaniment. Crudo, while still focused on very high quality and very fresh fish, tends to use a variety of other ingredients to add flavour and character to the dish. In general, this means olive oil, lemon juice, some herbs, and possibly some fruits or vegetables. Crudo can appear easier to make than sashimi (and certainly it is from a technique perspective), but it’s even more reliant on good quality ingredients than sashimi. Even if you start with great fish, you’ll end up with a forgettable dish if you use bland olive oil or bottled lemon juice.
Pesce crudo occupies an odd place in modern Italian cuisine. While fishermen have probably eaten seasoned raw fresh fish for centuries, it’s not traditionally occupied a prominent place in the Italian culinary world. There seems to be some confusion about just what differentiates crudo from, say, ceviche or poke. All of these (amazing) raw fish dishes have a great deal in common, but they have their differences as well. Ceviche, for example, tends to focus on curing the fish with an acidic sauce, effectively cooking it through chemistry rather than heat. Poke’s flavours are driven by the fusion-rich culture of Hawaii, and tends to play the fish against various tropical ingredients, often accompanied by the strong flavours of soy sauce, sesame oil, and sweet onion. Crudo, on the other hand, is an extension of the Italian obsession with using a small number of very good ingredients to maximum effect. While there is a little acid, it’s not as prominent as you’d find in ceviche, nor does it cure the fish so thoroughly. Fruits, vegetables, herbs, and marinades are also used to make crudo, but not the same bold in-your-face way that you get with most poke. Without putting to fine a point on it, it’s Italian raw fish.
Back to why we (and our imaginary Doc Brown) are seeing raw fish go through a meteoric rise in popularity. I have a theory that this kind of food speaks to a growing desire to return to ingredient-driven cuisine. This is SIMPLE food. You can make it look pretty (and hey, I’m obviously going for that here), and you can tweak and twist the recipes in all sorts of ways, but at the end of the day your meal can be no better than your ingredients. It’s a classic garbage-in, garbage-out situation, and no culinary wizardry can work around it. Chefs and home cooks alike are delivering a manifesto on ingredients when they make crudo. You place these bare, unfinessed ingredients together for all to see and you’re saying, ‘I’m not hiding anything here – I’m sharing the best of the best with you, without artifice or manipulation.’ Of course trendy food tends to go a little off the deep end, and I have not doubt that we’ll probably start seeing some ridiculous manipulations of the ceviche/crudo/sashimi/whatever modality. But when we do see things go to far (assuming we don’t strain our eyes with too much rolling), it’s important that we all wake up and remember the beauty and importance of keeping things simple, and keeping them honest.
I’m going to take a brief moment to reiterate the take-home message from above (he said, in his best teacher-voice). This is all about the ingredients. Sure, I spent some time making this look a little fancier, and doing the nice cube presentation, but there is virtually nothing to worry about here by way of technique. This dish is driven by good ingredients alone, and as such, you’ll want to pay extra attention to what you’re putting in.
This can’t be stressed enough – if you’re going to eat raw fish, it needs to be of both excellent quality and maximum freshness. Not all fish is meant to be eaten raw, nor should it be. My very best advice to you here is to develop a good relationship with a quality fish market. They’ll steer you towards the best, freshest product. Not all fishmongers are great or knowledgeable, so ask questions and do your homework. If you’re not getting answers, or the answers you get don’t make sense, find a new market.
I’ve used ahi (yellowfin) tuna (Thunnus albacares), and it’s a fantastic fish to use. It has an unparalleled flavour, and line-caught ahi tuna is one of the more environmentally sustainable fisheries out there today. A great piece of lean tuna steak will set you back a bit, but you don’t need much of it to make this an excellent meal.
If you’re so inclined, you can use a different kind of fish here, but ensure that it’s of a grade suitable for eating raw. Likewise, you can use a fattier cut of tuna, though if you do I might cut back the olive oil a bit.
As a final note, if you do decide to get tuna and you end up with more than you need for this recipe, check out my tataki recipe with scratch ponzu. It’s a beef recipe as written, but it works incredibly well with tuna too.
This is a tricky, and shockingly scandalous little blurb to have to write.
A lot of olive oil is fake. By fake, I mean it contains some olive oil, but has been cut with other oils, and in some cases colored. This is not done on the up-and-up; there are serious, ongoing issues surrounding organized crime and the covert adulteration of olive oil. I realize how bizarre this sounds, but it’s true. I would love to spend more time talking about this, and perhaps I will in the future, but for now I’ll direct you to the book Extra Virginity for a look at some of the shenanigans and some of the solutions that are cropping up in the olive oil world.
Setting aside issues related to purity, the most important factor in this situation is the flavour of your olive oil. It needs to serve as a vehicle for other flavours, and as a tasty addition in its own right. Olive oils can be intensely personal, with some preferring grassier, green tastes and others preferring nuttier or more mellow flavours. Your best bet is to actually taste a few brands, on their own (or with a little bit of bread). If you don’t like it on its own, you’re not going to like eating it here. Oil shops are becoming pretty trendy these days, and many major cities have at least one shop that will let you taste and buy specialty/region oils, and I strongly encourage you to hit one up. If you can’t get to a store like this, many small producers with extremely transparent production methods have set up shop on the internet. Do some investigating and you’ll be rewarded with great product, all while supporting a small farmer or producer.
Lastly (brace yourselves, Italians), don’t feel that your olive oil needs to be from Italy. Greece, Spain, and even South America are producing exceptional olive oils in small, quality batches. If you do want to buy Italian oil, seek out some of the emerging growers and producers that are aiming to add transparency and integrity to the current fracas.
Ok, everyone knows what a watermelon is, and I’m not here to drop any further bombshells on you, but I am going to try to encourage you to seek out great watermelon. You know those mealy, watery, seedless melons you can get everywhere, all the time? Don’t use those. Seriously, they’re just awful, and we all know it. There are some amazing seedless varieties out there, but it seems to me that the common cultivars shipped to most grocery stores are pretty flavourless. Shop around for local or semi-local seasonal watermelons. I used a local seeded watermelon for this and it was wonderful, but regardless of the variety you choose, make sure to try some before you make this. In fact, I’d shop for melon first, and when you do find a great one, seek out the fish and bring the rest of the recipe together.
If you haven’t read the ingredients yet, you might be surprised to see this blurb. There’s a pinch of ground fennel seed in this, and you do NOT want to leave it out. It’s that perfect pop of flavour that brings the whole thing together. I’m only using a little pinch of it, so try to use whole seeds and grind them yourself.
If you have access to good fennel plants, you could also use leafy fennel fronds, coarsely chopped, either in place of or as a supplement to the fennel seed itself.
NOTE: The nutritional information does NOT include bread or crackers, so adjust accordingly.
No ingredient pages have been written yet for any of the ingredients in this recipe. Like to see one? Let me know in the comments below or by email.
No pantry pages have been written yet for any of the ingredients in this recipe. Like to see one? Let me know in the comments below or by email.
*The crudo itself is gluten-free, but you’ll obviously have to choose serving crackers or bread accordingly.
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