April 20, 2011

Island Cooking: Enjoy your tuna catch all year by canning it


There is something to catch on a charter out of Hatteras all year round, but April marks the unofficial opening of the “season” for the charter fleet.  

Warmer weather and the usual abundance of yellowfin tuna in the Gulf Stream beckon anglers who have been penned up all winter.  Weekends especially book up early and quickly.

The star catch this time of year is yellowfin tuna, although other fish are taking the baits, including blackfin tuna.  Both can be used the same way.

The firm steaks are excellent for grilling, but there are many other ways to enjoy this savory saltwater seafood.

We had a beat up old skiff some years ago that our nephew worked on one summer and named “Chicken of the Sea.”  With apologies to the manufacturer that bears the same name, home-canned tuna far surpasses any commercial product.

We can tuna (I really mean Ernie cans tuna.).  It is a great way to preserve a catch and enjoy it all year or at least until the next fishing trip.


Sterilize canning jars and canning lids by boiling them in a large pan on the stove.

Cut the cleaned fish (with its blood line removed) into chunks, approximately the size of ice cubes.

Soak chunks in a chilled heavy salt brine solution overnight.

The next day, remove the fish from the brine with a slotted spoon and completely fill each jar with the fish chunks.  Screw the lids on tightly and then place the jars upright into a large pot of boiling water.  Cover the pot with its lid.

The entire jar with lid must remain under water during the entire process, so be sure the pot is tall enough.  You will also want to ensure the jars fit closely enough that they do not fall over.  Once the water returns to a boil, lower the heat to a rolling simmer.

Cook for 8 hours, checking to be sure the water has not evaporated and the jars remain under water.  Add boiling water as needed.  (A pressure cooker is much faster, but we do not use one, so if you do, follow the manufacturer’s directions.)

Carefully remove the jars and place on a cooling rack.  There is a special tool for this available where canning jars are sold that is really useful.  It is also inexpensive, so I recommend you get one rather than risk getting burned.

Within minutes you will hear a popping sound coming from the lids.  That sound indicates the seal is good.  If any of the jars do not seal properly (no pops), you should use the fish immediately.  Do not attempt to can it again.

Once cooled, the jars of canned tuna can be stored in a cupboard or pantry.  It is not necessary to refrigerate them unless they have been opened and the fish unused.  Not likely!  

They will keep for years!

When you do open the tuna there are many easy ways to enjoy the fish.  The most obvious is tuna salad.  Everyone has a favorite recipe, usually one you grew up with.  Use your own canned tuna just as you would a commercial brand and then serve it on a green salad, in a sandwich, on a crostini, in a pita, or open-faced with cheese broiled on top.  You will be delighted with the flavor and the texture.

I like tuna/macaroni salads for summer suppers, and a favorite of mine unites flavors from the sunny shores of the Mediterranean Sea.  After all, tuna is caught there too.  


1 jar of home-canned tuna
1 box small pasta shells (Not only are they the appropriate shape for a seafood salad but they also capture some of the small chopped pieces of veggies and cheese.)
1 tablespoon plain Greek yogurt
1 tablespoon fresh feta cheese plus more for garnish
1/2 jar (6.5 ounce jar) roasted red peppers, chopped
1/2 jar (6.5 oz. jar) sun-dried tomatoes, chopped small
1 tablespoon artichoke hearts, chopped
1 teaspoon sun-dried garlic spread
1 tablespoon small pitted Greek, Provencal or Tunisian olives, chopped, plus more for garnish
1/2 small onion, chopped
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper.  (I use Urfa pepper from Turkey for a distinctive taste but any black pepper will do.)

I also add about a teaspoon of a traditional Arabic spice mixture called Ras el Hanout that I order online.  It contains cardamom and saffron, among other exotic spices.  But the dish is just as good without it.  Dried oregano pairs nicely with the fish, the feta and the other Mediterranean ingredients.

Cook shells according to package directions but not too long.  You want them to be somewhat firm, so taste one before you think they are done cooking.  Drain and immediately cool.

Drain the tuna and place in large bowl.  Lightly break up chunks with a fork, not too small.  Add cooked, cooled shells.  Don’t worry about the cooking liquid that will cling to the shells.  It helps the other ingredients to adhere to the pasta.

Stir in the yogurt and feta to get a creamy texture.  Add other ingredients.  Taste and adjust.  Sprinkle on the garnish of olives and feta cheese just before serving.

Store in fridge until ready to serve.  This is a good picnic dish since it is all in one - fish, pasta, and veggies.

Another easy but elegant summer dish is Italian tuna and cannellini (white beans) salad.  Just a few ingredients are added so the tuna really shines.  That is why home canned tuna is best.  It is a good appetizer and also a light main course dish for hot days.


1 jar home-canned tuna
2 cans cannellini (white beans)
Fresh lettuce
1 red onion
Fresh garlic bread crumbs
Good extra-virgin olive oil
Sea salt and fresh ground black pepper
Fresh cut herbs. Use what you have, but it is really good with fresh marjoram, oregano, or sage.

Make bread crumbs from garlic bread by crumbling the cooked bread and then drying on a baking sheet in a low oven until firm.  

Drain the tuna and drain and rinse the beans and arrange atop lettuce leaves on a platter.

Thinly slice rounds of red onion and place on top of tuna and beans.  Top with bread crumbs, salt and pepper, and chopped fresh herbs and dribble olive oil over all.  

Note that the recipes can use freshly cooked tuna too.  Simply chunk and boil.  Or you can grill or sear tuna fish and it will complement the recipes very well.
If you cannot get out to the Gulf Stream to catch tuna yourself, ask for it in the local seafood markets here on the islands where it will be fresh and caught locally.  Otherwise you might as well eat the “other” brands!

(Lynne Foster lives in Hatteras village with her husband, Ernie. Together they operate The Albatross Fleet of charter boats. They actively support the sustainable practices of the island’s commercial fishermen and the preservation of Hatteras Island’s working waterfront.  Both love to cook seafood and entertain friends, and Lynne loves to experiment with recipes for locally caught seafood.)

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