I’m standing in front of 18 mason jars, an impeccably clean kitchen counter, and about 16 pounds of fresh Bluefin tuna. Why? Well, a few years ago, Ken Mason and his wife took a trip to Portugal.
“All over Portugal people are crazy for canned fish. It’s all kinds of seafood whether it’s shellfish, shrimp, octopus, squid, cuddlefish, all kinds of tuna, sardines, anchovies, and the list goes on and on,” Ken said.
Vending machines of canned fish are all over the place in Portugal. You can walk down the street and find a vending machine with cans of seafood in it, and for a euro or two you can get a can of sardines or a can of tunafish.
Ken’s son Morgan has a tuna boat, and for the past few years, he’s been catching a lot of Bluefin and sharing it with his parents.
“We had a lot of tuna to work with and we ate a lot of it fresh, and we gave a lot of it away and we tried freezing it, and I was never really satisfied with freezing the fish, it never came out right. And so that kind of lit the light bulb in my head and so when I got back from that trip to Portugal I started doing some research on canning fish,” Ken said.
He started working on the process. He bought a pressure canner, one meant for home use.
The pressure canner looks more approachable than I anticipated—it sits on the stove and besides a pressure release valve and a gage, it looks like any other big, heavy duty pot or kind of like a pressure cooker. On the counter, Ken is slicing freshly trimmed tuna and getting ready to season it.
Ken explained how it works.
“And so it’s a really simple formula. It’s about a pound of tuna loin, a couple of teaspoons of salt, about a half to a teaspoon of red pepper flakes I like to use, you can omit those if you don’t like the spiciness, and two tablespoons of olive oil.”
You pack it in the jar, raw, with the seasonings, and put the lids on loosely. Then you pack it in the pressure canner and process it for an hour and fifty minutes at ten pounds pressure.
When he puts the glass pint jars with the classic two-part metal lid and ring screwed on into the pressure canner he adds a little bit of water to the pot, turns on the stove, and screws on a heavy metal lid. There are a few other details—you have to wipe the rims of the jars clean, Ken says, before you put the tops on, because even a single red pepper flake could wreck the seal—and you also want to make sure there aren’t many air pockets between the fish and the olive oil, not because the fish will spoil, but because it will change the color from dark pink to gray and make it less appealing. Otherwise, that’s it. It’s amazingly simple.
Last year the Masons made a lot of batches of tuna, over 150 jars from just one fish.
Ken and Jill give some away, but they also eat a lot. The jars keep for up to two or even three years on a pantry shelf, and they’ve thought of all sorts of creative ways to use the moist, flakey canned Bluefin tuna.
“We’ve done nicoises….I was in Spain in March, and all over Valencia they make a salad with a fresh ripe tomato with flaked tuna fish and a dressing on it and capers or sliced onions and they serve it in virtually every restaurant in Valencia so that’s one of the things I like to do,” Ken said.
Another thing that he does is take a jar of tuna and flake it up and in a sauté pan with olive oil, garlic, lemon juice and some capers. He then puts that over angel hair pasta.
“It is very good. It also sounds very pedestrian but it makes an extraordinarily delicious tuna salad. And so we’ll throw together a little tuna salad because I think Morgan wants some lunch, so I think we’ll have to make some tuna salad.”
Morgan’s been standing next to me, watching his parents put up the catch. He’s been quiet—but when we dig into fresh baguette with homemade Bluefin tuna salad topped with thin slices of apple and cheddar cheese—he isn’t shy about complimenting the fish or the chefs.
“Oh yeah, it’s killer, it’s so good.”