Figuring out which tuna to buy can be a bit confusing. As with all wild fish, buying sustainable tuna is all about the health of the population, and how and where it’s caught. Here's a primer, with a focus on the safest bet — albacore tuna from BC's Pacific tuna fleet — with recipes.
By CINDA CHAVICH
Bruce Martinelli is a fisherman who lives on Quadra Island, and I can see his smiling face on the label of the ivory albacore tuna loin thawing on my kitchen counter.
This North Pacific Albacore was hauled from the waters off our coast, from his 50-foot troller Tantrum No.1, where his wife Pilar and three-year-old son Rex round out the family crew. The Martinellis fish sustainably — each fish caught with hooks and lines, never nets, and brought on board by hand, to be quickly flash frozen. The result is local fish that’s truly pristine when it gets to the table.
I received their albacore via my Skipper Otto community shared fishing (CSF) subscription. It’s a great way to put a face on your food, and contribute to the livelihood of a local fishing family.
After talking with the Martinellis about the weeks they spend out on the open ocean, the long and difficult days fishing 50 to 200 miles off shore in rough seas and changeable weather, I’m amazed at their commitment and grit. The Canadian tuna fleet uses hook and line gear, trolling for this highly migratory species. It’s a targeted, sustainable fishery with little by catch or other environmental impacts. In a world that’s dominated by an armada of giant, industrial trawlers, fishing tuna on the high seas using miles of baited long lines and massive drift nets that scoop up birds, turtles, aquatic mammals and other fish in their wake, I’m learning why BC albacore is the best choice.
“All of our tuna are small fish, five years old max, and just 14 to 20 pounds,” says Pilar, noting the smaller albacore are low in mercury and higher in healthy Omega 3 fatty acids when compared with larger tuna.
“I feel very proud about our product, and the way Bruce fishes with care and concern.”
Figuring out which tuna to buy can be a bit confusing. As with all wild fish, buying sustainable tuna is all about the health of the population, and how and where it’s caught.
Giant bluefin, the largest tuna, is endangered and so is never a good choice. BC trollers targeting albacore may bring in an occasional bluefin, and a few red-fleshed yellowfin (ahi) tuna, too. But when you see inexpensive frozen tuna in the supermarket, it’s likely coming from foreign long liners.
A good fishmonger can tell you where the fish they sell was caught, and often by which vessel. At Oak Bay Seafood, for example, all of the fish — whether fresh, frozen or served in their café — comes from sustainable fisheries.
You’ll see who caught the fish in the retail store at Finest At Sea (FAS) in Victoria, too. Operations Manager Jennifer Gidora says FAS’s own fishermen offload their catch at Fisherman’s Wharf. It’s a premium product that’s processed on site, and sold frozen, cold- or hot-smoked.
“When I’m talking to chefs, I explain that it’s important to know the origin of the fish, the vessel and catch method — trust your fish monger,” she says.
“We have five of our own boats fishing tuna,” adds Rich McBride, a fisherman and FAS’s Plant Manager. The coastal Canadian fleet fishes inside the 200-mile nautical limit where albacore come to the surface in warm currents, he says, but there is also cheaper tuna being dumped into the market, fish that’s caught by industrial trawlers using miles of drifting long lines and nets that trap other fish, turtles and aquatic mammals. Whether southern Pacific albacore, red ahi or bigeye, it’s likely larger fish caught on the high seas by foreign fleets, a largely unregulated fishery that’s been blamed for overfishing and exploitation of the word’s oceans. “They’re landing hundreds of thousands of pounds of tuna in Vancouver and Seattle at bargain basement prices, it’s cut down into smaller loins and all looks the same,” adds McBride of the fish coming from industrial trawlers.
“Tuna is migratory, spanning the whole Pacific Ocean, and it’s really hard to regulate anything on the high seas.”
EATING BC ALBACORE
So once you have that pristine piece of local albacore tuna, what’s the best way to serve it?
The smaller albacore tuna have the highest levels of healthy Omega-3 fats, but it’s a dense, meaty fish and easy to overcook. Like a good steak, rare is best or, as many tuna experts agree, raw is better.
“I’m pretty opinionated about how to eat tuna,” says chef Jesse Wilson, who has “ultra rare” tuna on the menu at Little Jumbo. “When it comes to tuna, I would have it raw over cooked every time.”
Wilson says albacore pairs well with Asian flavours, and is delicious when lightly smoked. For his Tuna and Soba Noodle Salad, the lightly seared albacore is served on soba noodles with sesame emulsion. At home, the chef says he simply douses his raw, sashimi grade tuna with soy sauce for a fast poke-style snack.
“The flavour is subtle and beautiful, I want to taste the tuna,” Wilson adds. “I’m all about local albacore — what grows together, goes together.”
Pilar Martinelli agrees.
“The higher fat content of this cold-water fish lends a lusciousness to its flavor profile and firm flesh,” she says. “We love this sashimi grade fish seared, grilled, and raw. It’s another one of our favourite choices for tacos!”
Fresh BC albacore is on the menu at many top tables in Victoria, from The Empress Hotel to Agrius and Little Jumbo. But you’ll also find local albacore in the tuna sandwiches at Salt & Pepper Fox, and seared medium rare with spot prawn mayo in the tuna tacone from Red Fish, Blue Fish. Soy-cured local albacore comes with marinated cucumber in a rice bowl at Foo Asian Street Food, and cold smoked tuna tops the tasty Tuna Melt tartine at Fish Hook.
McBride likes his albacore tataki-style, and says the chefs at Ebizo Japanese Restaurant are the experts, creating a lightly seared loin with no char. At home, he recommends a quick sauté in a bit of canola and sesame oil, just until the fish turns white. Starting with cold or slightly frozen fish helps keep it rare, he says.
THE FILET MIGNON OF FISH
It wasn’t too long ago that most of the albacore tuna available was found in cans, but happily it’s now far easier to access fresh albacore to cook at home.
Sleek, silvery and built for speed, tuna are most common in tropical waters, but come to the surface in warm currents off our coastline in summer. BC albacore is blast frozen at sea, keeping its fresh, just-caught quality intact, a “sashimi grade” fish that’s safe to consume raw. But it’s also beautiful to grill, a meaty fish known as “the sirloin of the sea.”
I’ll be looking for more of this delicate, buttery tuna, to serve with fresh tomatoes and green beans in Nicoise salads, tossed with soy sauce for Hawaiian-style poke, or rolled into fresh corn tortillas with avocados and salsa. I may even try tuna Sicilian-style, baked with green olives, capers and raisins in a basil-infused tomato sauce, or lightly “cooked” with citrus and chilies in fresh tuna ceviche.
I’m also partial to cold-smoked albacore — a sliver silky smoked tuna on a seaweed rice cracker, with a dab of wasabi-infused mayonnaise, is our go-to appetizer.
Albacore tuna is a gift from our local waters and our hard-working local fishermen. I’m hooked!
TUNA AND SOBA NOODLE SALAD
A recipe from Chef Jesse Wilson of Little Jumbo – ultra rare tuna, lightly seared and served with sesame dressing atop soba noodles with house pickles.
1 package buckwheat soba noodles, about 250 g
1 BC Albcore tuna loin, about 1 pound, mostly thawed if frozen, and cut into four, 3-inch portions
salt and pepper
crushed pink peppercorns (or your favourite spices)
1 teaspoon canola oil
3 tablespoons each: water, soy sauce, and rice vinegar or apple cider vinegar
2 cloves garlic
2 tablespoons tahini (sesame paste)
¾ cup canola oil
1 cup each: water and rice vinegar
3 mini cucumbers, sliced paper thin
½ red onion, sliced paper thin
2 cloves garlic, pressed or minced
1 hot pepper, sliced paper thin
½ cup thinly sliced mushrooms (or enoki), optional
toasted sesame seeds, furikake or nori to garnish
To make the pickled vegetables, combine the water and vinegar and pour over the sliced vegetables. Refrigerate for several hours or overnight.
For the sesame emulsion, in a blender, combine the water, soy sauce, vinegar, garlic and tahini and blend well. With the machine running, slowly add the canola oil to create an emulsified dressing. Refrigerate.
Cook the soba noodles in boiling, salted water until just barely tender, then drain, rinse with cold water to cool, and drain again. Toss with enough sesame dressing to coat.
Trim the tuna loin, removing any belly meat to sear separately. Season the tuna pieces with salt and pepper on all sides, then roll in crushed pink peppercorns (or other spices) to coat. If the tuna is very cold, even slightly frozen in the centre, it will be easier to keep it very rare.
Heat a non-stick pan over high heat and add a teaspoon of canola oil. When the oil is very hot, nearly smoking, gently set the tuna pieces into the pan, one at a time, and cook for about 10-15 seconds on each of the loin’s three sides. You can watch the tuna turn from pink to white on the edges as it sears — you just want a very thin rim of cooked exterior with an ultra rare, pink interior. Remove tuna from the pan and set aside to rest for 5 minutes, before cutting each piece into slices using a very sharp knife.
To serve, drain the pickled vegetables and arrange in individual bowls around the soba noodles. Place the seared tuna on top and drizzle with additional sesame emulsion. Sprinkle with toasted sesame seeds, slivered nori or furikake to garnish. Serves 4.
TUNA POKE WITH AVOCADO
Serve raw tuna in a light soy and rice vinegar sauce with crispy wonton chips or lettuce cups for an easy appetizer.
8 oz. sashimi grade albacore tuna, chilled
2 teaspoons light Japanese soy sauce
1 teaspoon rice vinegar
1 teaspoon lemon or lime juice
1 teaspoon sesame oil
2 green onions, thinly sliced
1 small avocado, peeled and diced
1 teaspoon toasted sesame seeds (or black sesame seeds)
wonton chips or cristp romaine lettuce hearts
Cut the cold tuna into ¼-½-inch cubes. Refrigerate.
In a serving bowl, combine the soy sauce, vinegar, citrus juice, sesame oil and green onion. Add the tuna cubes to the bowl and mix gently to combine.
Fold in the avocado. Sprinkle with sesame seeds.
Scoop the poke up with wonton chips or lettuce. Serves 4.
GRILLED TUNA NICOISE
You can also use good quality canned albacore for this classic combination. St. Jean’s Cannery in Nanaimo packs fresh tuna by hand before canning — a true artisan product with exceptional flavour.
1 pound albacore tuna loin, cut into four portions
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 pound small new red or yellow fingerling potatoes, scrubbed and halved (or quartered if large)
2 cups fresh green beans, stems removed
1 cup grape or cherry tomatoes, halved
½ cup Nicoise or other small black olives
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 clove garlic, minced
¼ teaspoon salt
1 cup fresh basil leaves (or 1 tablespoon pesto)
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
To make the vinaigrette, in a blender, combine the lemon juice, zest, mustard, garlic, salt and basil whirl until smooth. With the machine running, slowly add the oil. Whirl in a splash more oil or water if the dressing is too thick. Place half of the dressing in a bowl and refrigerate the rest.
Put a steamer basket in a large saucepan and add about 2 inches (5 cm) of water. Put the potatoes in the steamer basket and steam until tender, about 15 to 20 minutes. Add the warm potatoes to the dressing in the bowl; toss.
Add the green beans to the steamer and steam until just barely tender, about 2 minutes. Rinse under cold water to stop the cooking process. Place in a bowl and add a spoonful of dressing, tossing to coat.
Rub the tuna with olive oil and season on all sides with salt and pepper. Heat the grill to high and cook tuna quickly, a minute per side at most, until lightly charred and still rare at the centre. Remove from heat and set aside to rest, then cut each piece into three thick slices.
To serve, arrange potatoes and beans on four individual plates. Top each with grilled tuna, scatter tomatoes and olives around the plate, and drizzle with additional vinaigrette. Serves 4.