Fusilli with tuna, aubergines and almonds is a Sicilian recipe as just about every Italian recipe is that has almonds in the ingredients. Almond trees are found all over Sicily, second only to olive trees, with the two best areas being Agrigento in the west where there is an annual Almond Blossom Festival in late February or early March (now in its 75th year) and Noto in the province of Siracusa. The almonds are harvested in July and August and figure prominently in many famous Sicilian dolci as well as savory dishes like pesto alla trapanese.
Tuna fishing also has a long Sicilian history, predominantly the bluefin tuna (known confusingly as tonno rosso in Italy) but it is now rare, expensive and highly prized in Japan for sushi so the entire Italian quota under EU regulations is barely enough just to meet the demand in Japan where the highest price is offered; a price which is not just a little more but a multiple of what Europeans are prepared to pay. There are now only 15 Italian vessels authorized to land bluefin down from 98 twenty years ago and the fishing season is typically just four months in the year from mid June to mid October. Under the bluefish recovery plan implemented in 2006 stocks are slowly starting to increase though they are still bedevilled by illegal fishing.
The bluefin tuna has also recently returned to British waters, just in time for Brexit. Meanwhile, as the yellowfin tuna (pinna gialla) does not come into the Mediterranean, the best “fresh” tuna to be found in Italy is yellowfin caught in the warm pacific waters off Baja California, then frozen, shipped to Italy and thawed to look at its best on the fishmonger’s counter.
It’s perfectly fine tuna for this and other cooked tuna dishes but if environmentalists want to persuade humans to fly less then we should perhaps first think about stopping Italian bluefish tuna from flying fresh to Japan while Mexican yellowfin tuna are flying frozen to Italy on an even longer journey.
Ingredients for 4 people:
500 g (17 oz) fusilli (for a one course dinner)
250 g (8.5 oz) (fresh yellowfin tuna cut into 1 inch cubes)
½ cup blanched almonds, pan-fried dry for a few minutes then finely chopped
20-25 small cherry tomatoes, halved or quartered
2 medium-sized aubergines (see Notes)
2 cloves garlic
½ glass white wine
extra virgin Italian olive oil
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
handful of flat-leaf Italian parsley finely chopped
1. Aubergines/eggplants: the Italian purple melanzane are smaller with more of a teardrop shape than the larger, darker American globe eggplants which can be tougher and meatier so may require chopping into pieces then salting and draining in a colander for up to an hour beforehand to get rid of some of the bitter excess liquid.
2. Cooking aubergines: most if not all the recipes we read with this ingredient suggest sautéing aubergine pieces in a pan but if you’ve ever done this you’ll know just how much olive oil they absorb in the process. Way too much in our opinion and they can also become slightly soggy so we prefer to moderate the amount of oil and bake them instead, with the added advantage that you can then just leave them alone and get on with the rest of the dish.
1. Heat the oven to 200 C (390 F) and chop the aubergines into 1 inch cubes, salt generously and put into a bowl. When the oven is ready pour a good slug of oil into the bowl and mix the aubergine pieces by hand so they’re all well oiled then spread them out on a baking sheet and put the tray in the oven with a timer set for about 25 minutes.
2. Put the almonds in a pan and with the heat quite high give them a few minutes to toast, without burning them, then chop them up and put them to one side.
3. Oil a large enough pan to be used to mix in the pasta later, add the two garlic cloves either peeled or in camicia and let them color only a little on medium heat before discarding them.
4. Put the fusilli into salted water on a rolling boil (butta la pasta, as they say in Italy). You’re now working with 11-12 minutes to get everything else done which should be plenty of time.
5. Halve or quarter the tomatoes so they’re quite small
6. Season the cubes of tuna then turn the heat up and add them to the pan. Stir them for 1-2 minutes as they cook, then add the wine, let it bubble up to allow the alcohol to evaporate
7. Add the tomatoes and simmer for about 3 minutes, then add the baked aubergine pieces out of the oven, mix well and check for seasoning.
8. Taste the pasta and while it’s still al dente, a minute before it’s ready, add the fusilli to the pan using a slotted spoon (or drain the pasta pan while reserving some of the cooking water)
9. Mix well, add the chopped parsley with a good slug of olive oil and mix again. If it looks too dry then add a little of the reserved cooking water. Finally, sprinkle on the chopped almonds and serve.