Most cultures that fish for tuna make tuna meatballs, but I find the Sicilians do it the best.
I developed this tuna meatball recipe a decade ago, after a great tuna trip in North Carolina.
This trip was epic, one of the few that punch through the fog of 45 years’ worth of fishing trips. It was aboard the Stormy Petrel II, 40 miles out of Oregon Inlet on a warm Saturday morning in September, right after a hurricane.
My friends Jamie and Brian had invited me on their annual offshore fishing trip, Killboxapalooza. Uh, wha? Killboxapalooza is what they call their big fishing trip, the one where they do their best to catch as many fish as they can to freeze for winter.
Normally, tuna fishing is a matter of trolling baits and waiting. You sit back, drink a beer and wait for a tuna to hit a line. Then someone gets up and fights the fish, hopefully bringing it to the boat. Everyone takes a turn at the reel as you get more and more hookups. If you’re lucky, everyone gets a tuna. But this was not a normal day. The first tuna hit before the mate had even finished setting the lines. Fish on!
In the end, I’d caught three yellowfin and three bonito, and the 10 of us on the boat had caught 32 yellowfin and 12 bonito. Each of us brought home so much tuna that it could feed us for months. I think my bag weighed close to 30 pounds of pure meat. I gave a bunch of it to my friend Mike, who was putting me up in North Carolina. It was cool to be able to cook some tuna for Mike. We’ve been friends for a powerful long time and I jumped at the chance to make something for him to say thanks.
All the trim I cut up for these tuna meatballs. They have lots of mint, pistachio nuts, breadcrumbs and a little bit of hot pepper. I cooked the meatballs in my fennel-tomato sauce, which I use a lot with seafood.
I am happy to say the dish was a winner. Unless you ate a meatball with no sauce and concentrated on the flavor, you couldn’t tell that these were tuna meatballs. It was bizarre. I totally expected to get a fishy flavor, which was fine, as these things were primarily ground tuna, but there wasn’t one. All you got was meatiness, a hit of mint and occasionally a burst of pistachio flavor.
Once made, you can cook and then freeze your tuna meatballs. Reheat them in whatever sauce you want to eat them with, right out of the freezer and slowly on the stove.
Sicilian Tuna Meatballs
- 1 1/2 pounds tuna
- 2/3 cup breadcrumbs
- 1/3 cup shelled pistachios or almonds, chopped
- 1 cup minced onion
- 1/2 cup chopped fresh mint
- Zest of a lemon
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 1 egg
- Flour for dusting
- Olive oil for frying
- 1 recipe, fennel-tomato sauce
- Chop the tuna into 1/2 inch pieces. Put the tuna, mint, pistachios and the chopped onion in a food processor and pulse to combine. You want a rough mixture, not a smooth paste. Put the tuna mixture into a large bowl with the breadcrumbs, salt, lemon zest and egg and mix well with your clean hands for a minute or so. You want everything combined well and you want the proteins in the egg and tuna to bind the mixture.
- Using an ice cream scoop or large spoon to scoop out the meat, roll into meatballs. You should be able to make about 20 golf ball-sized meatballs. Roll each meatball in flour and fry in enough olive oil to come half way up the sides of a large frying pan. You will probably need about 1/2 cup. Fry gently until browned over medium heat, about 15 to 20 minutes, and set each finished meatball on paper towels to drain.
- To finish, stew the meatballs in the tomato sauce (you can use any tomato sauce you want, if you'd rather not make the tomato-fennel sauce ) until heated through, about 5 to 10 minutes, and serve alone or with pasta.