If you’ve never had vitello tonnato before, you probably think veal and tuna are an unlikely pair. But in fact this classic dish from the Piemonte region in Italy (called vitel tonnà in the Piemontese language) is a great combination. Traditionally, vitello tonnato is made by poaching the “girello” cut of “Fassone” veal (a prized Piemontese breed of veal) in a stock with aromatic vegetables and white wine, sliced thinly and served with a sauce of canned tuna, hard-boiled eggs, capers, anchovies, extra virgin olive oil, lemon juice, and a bit of the cooking liquid. Girello (also known as tondino or magatello in Italian) is a particular cut of veal from the hind leg called “Eye of Round” (“achtermuis” in Dutch). Real Fassone veal would be outstanding, but regular veal will work just fine to make your own vitello tonnato.
When poaching the veal in a stock, a lot of the taste from the veal will leak into the stock. That is why I prefer to pan-sear the veal and finish it in the oven or sous-vide to a core temperature of 55C/131F. The browning also provides additional taste. The disadvantage of this approach is that the veal is not aromatised by the vegetables and wine. And so I decided to add the aromatic veggies to the sous-vide preparation. The eye of round is a tender piece of veal with a light flavor, and I thought I could improve my sous-vide vitello tonnato even more by using a tougher cut with more flavor and cook it tender using sous-vide. I tried this with a cut that is known as flat iron steak in the US (“sukade” in Dutch, although here it still has the tendon that is removed in flat iron steak), and it worked out great! I think this approach will work with any piece of tough veal that doesn’t have big tendons/sinews such as veal brisket. It is for sure the way I will prepare vitello tonnato from now on!
If you don’t have sous-vide equipment, you can still make great vitello tonnato by purchasing the traditional cut (eye of round) and cooking it to a core temperature of 55C/131F in the oven at 160C/325F. If you do that, you can skip all the steps of the recipe regarding the vegetables.
The sauce for vitello tonnato is sometimes made with mayonnaise instead of hard-boiled eggs. With mayonnaise it is creamier but also contains a lot more oil, so I’m sticking to hard-boiled eggs.
In any case, vitello tonnato is a great appetizer on its own, or as part of an antipasti buffet. The flavors develop when you let the finished dish rest in the refrigerator for a day or longer before serving.
900 grams (2 lbs) veal, eye of round if cooking in the oven or brisket/flat iron if cooking sous-vide
6 anchovy fillets
aceto balsamico and/or lemon juice (to taste)
2 Tbsp capers
4 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 Tbsp clarified butter or 1 Tbsp butter + 1 Tbsp olive oil
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 can tuna with olive oil (about 100 grams/4 oz tuna)
3 hard-boiled eggs
If cooking sous-vide:
2 bay leaves
1 stick celery
2 cloves garlic
1 sprig rosemary
1 glass (100 ml) dry white wine
Finely chop the carrot, onion, celery, rosemary, garlic, and bay leaves.
Heat the clarified butter (or butter and olive oil) in a frying pan. Add the veal when the butter is hot.
Cook sous-vide for 8 hours at 55C/131F if using tough meat such as flat iron or brisket. For tender veal such as eye of round, you only need the time needed to bring the whole piece of veal up to temperature.
Open the pouch, remove the veal and wipe it clean. Let it cool. Reserve the juices from the pouch, but not the vegetables.
If you used a Dutch flat iron cut (“sukade”), you can quite easily cut the tough tendon out of the middle of each slice.
Vitello tonnato is served at room temperature or slightly below that (I prefer the latter, but not straight from the refrigerator). It’s best when you let the flavors develop for at least a day before serving.
The obvious choice is a dry white wine from Piemonte from a local grape such as Arneis or Gavi di Gavi. It should be full-bodied to match the full flavor of the dish.