Vitello Tonnato was a festive dish in my childhood home and it has remained so in mine.
In my childhood home, it was presented as an entrée when we had guests.
Nowadays, of course, very few of us have definite first and second courses. Anything goes! I am smiling as I write this – doing away with some conventions isn’t a bad thing. But years back, I would never have ordered a risotto, soup or pasta as my main course! Never.
When my mother made Vitello Tonnato, she always pot roasted the veal. The veal was cooked slowly with the usual broth vegetables – an onion cut in half, a carrot and a stick of celery. There were also herbs – bay leaves, a bit of rosemary and mainly sage. Sage always with veal and pork, my mother said. The moisture was supplied by some white wine and stock, or a little water and a stock cube. The vegetables were blended into a little home-made ,egg mayonnaise, some of the very flavourful and naturally jellied gravy/sauce, 2-3 hard boiled eggs, capers and some anchovies. This was the Tonnato sauce; tonno is ‘tuna’ in Italian. My mother did not use a Girello because she thought that cut of meat would be too dry. She preferred a boned leg of veal. This was yearling beef in Australia.
The finely sliced meat was placed in 4 to 5 layers, each topped with some of the sauce and placed into a serving dish with sides. On top there was a layer of the yellow egg mayonnaise with some sliced hard-boiled eggs and maybe some giardiniera a colourful decoration of Italian garden vegetables pickled in vinegar, that added texture and sourness. Sometimes there were anchovies or capers, or sliced carrot as was one of an earlier versions of Vitello Tonnato.
And it always tasted very good.
Vitello Tonnato originates from Piedmont, but it has become a widely eaten Italian dish.
If you have eaten Vitello Tonnato in an Australian restaurant, you may have had it in a single layer with the tonnato sauce on top. My taste buds and sense of smell are pretty sharp, but rarely have I tasted complex flavours in the Tonnato sauce. There have, however, been a few good ones.
There are many recipes both in the Italian language books/web and many available in English. In most recipes the meat is what I would call boiled or poached. The cut of meat suggested in recipes is mostly Girello, the long, round, nut or eye cut of silverside that is extremely lean that is perfect for slicing. It is found outside of the rear leg.
Even though you may poach the Girello in liquid it can be dry. My mother was sometimes right.
But there is a way to keep it moist, and that is to poach it on a gentle simmer rather than on medium or high heat. The other trick is not to cook it for long and then leave it in the poaching liquid to finish off cooking. If you follow this process, the meat will remain pink and firm. I leave the meat in the poaching liquid to keep it moist until I am ready to slice it.
These days I do use a Girello and I like to sear the meat lightly before I poach it to add colour and taste. Interestingly enough, I have not found many recipes that sear the meat first and perhaps it is why I like and identify with the recipes for Vitello Tonnato from Guy Grossi and Karen Martini. Even Ada Boni just poaches it.
Most recipes add anchovies to the poaching liquid, but I prefer to add them to the Tonnato sauce.
1.5k – 1.8k veal/yearling Girello,
1 onion, 1 carrot, 2 celery stalks and some of the tender light green leaves, all thinly sliced,
6 fresh bay leaves, a few sage leaves and whole peppercorns and if you wish, add about 3 juniper berries, or cloves or a teaspoon of fennel seeds and a little salt,
600 ml dry white wine, 250 ml (1 cup) white wine vinegar, 250 ml (1 cup) of chicken stock: this quantity should just cover the meat when it is poaching. Add more of the liquid if necessary.
Extra virgin olive oil for searing the meat and the vegetables.
The Tonnato sauce
4 anchovy fillets, 4 hard boiled eggs, 2 tins (each 425g) of drained good quality, tinned tuna in oil, 2 tablespoons of capers (in this case I don’t mind using the pickled capers), 200 ml of extra virgin olive oil, the juice of one lemon.
Sear the meat on all sides in some oil, remove from the saucepan and sear the vegetables by tossing them around in the pan for about 5 minutes.
Add the wine, vinegar and stock, herbs, pepper and spices and bring to the boil.
Add the meat, make sure there is enough liquid, and simmer over low heat. Cook it for about 15-20 minutes. Switch it off and leave the meat to keep on cooking and cool in the liquid.
Store the meat in the liquid until you are ready to slice it and assemble it but remove a cup of the poaching stock to reduce to about ¼ of a cup. This is added to the Tonnato sauce.
For the Tonnato sauce, blend the tuna, anchovies, drained capers, extra virgin olive oil, lemon juice, extra-virgin olive oil, the reduced liquid and hard-boiled eggs. I also like to add some of the drained celery leaves and sage. I nearly always have some home-made egg mayonnaise in the fridge and also add some of this if the sauce is too thick, otherwise use a little more of the poaching liquid. The sauce needs to be the consistency of mayonnaise.
Slice the veal thinly across the grain. I like to make little mounds of meat for each person, spreading each slice of meat with a little sauce and repeating the process. Depending on the width of the meat each mound will have 2-4 slices.
Top each mound with more sauce. Cover and refrigerate until you are ready to serve it. Bring the Vitello Tonnato to room temperature and arrange some sliced boiled eggs and capers on top. A little bit of greenery around it is also good.