Vitello tonnato and a life-changing mayonnaise hack

A few weeks back I got a craving for vitello tonnato. A Piemonte dish that probably dates to the 19th Century, it consists of cold, thinly sliced veal slathered with a tuna-flavoured mayonnaise. I know. It sounds weird but it is incredibly delicious: a combination of textures and tastes that is perfect for the hot summer months. Pellegrino Artusi — Italy’s most influential cookbook writer (he lived from 1820-1911) included a recipe for vitello tonnato in his masterwork, La scienza in cucina e l’arte di mangiare bene (The science of cooking and the art of eating well). Artusi’s recipe did not feature mayonnaise, which I wish I’d known sooner, but we’ll get to that.

Pellegrino Artusi with some mighty impressive mutton chops (cue food joke)

Pellegrino Artusi with some mighty impressive mutton chops (cue food joke)

Artusi included recipes from all of Italy’s regions in his book. It was only 20 years after the unification of Italy and he’s often credited with using food to forge a sort of national identity (as well as with giving the hegemony of French cuisine a run for its money). Pellegrino was born to a well-off family in Forlimpopoli, in the region of Romagna. In 1851, 40 years before the publication of the cookbook, a brigand named Stefano Bonelli (better known by his nickname, ‘The Ferryman’ after his father’s profession) and his bandits took hostage the Verdi Theatre, where a bunch of richies were enjoying a performance of the dramatic oratorio, The Death of Sisara. Thanks to the help of his spies (In some circles, he was seen as a sort of Robin Hood who was sticking it to the man), The Ferryman knew the identity of Forlimpopoli’s fattest cats. His men escorted them home, beat them up and robbed them blind.

The bandits also did a home invasion at the casa di Artusi (who seem to have not been at the theatre). Pellegrino was pistol-whipped; his mother was knocked down; one of his sisters was stabbed; another was brutally gang-raped (the father had fainted with shock when the bandits showed up, thus saving himself the indignity of a beating). The family fled to Florence the next day. The sister who had been raped went mad and spent the rest of her life in an asylum. Isn’t that horrible? Anyway, Artusi’s cookbook is delightful and if you care about Italian food, you should have a look.

Il Passatore: The Ferryman

Il Passatore: The Ferryman

Vitello tonnato is one of those traditional dishes that you used to see on menus all the time and now hardly ever do. If I wanted to appease my craving, I was going to have to make it myself. The problem is that this involved a multi-stage and somewhat fiddly process and I am an accomplished but extremely lazy cook. There are many different ways to make vitello tonnato but the one I used involved browning and then braising the veal; letting it rest overnight; and composing an elaborate mayonnaise made from tuna, capers, anchovies and other yummy things. Ah. Mayonnaise. I had forgotten about that part.

I have tried (and mostly failed) to make mayonnaise on several occasions in the past. I love homemade mayo but I just have never had the knack. I was determined to do the vitello tonnato thing though so I forged ahead, guns a’blazing. Gigantic fail. Gigantic. Before starting, I consulted about a million mayonnaise recipes, each of which was, of course, different. They differed in the order in which to add the ingredients, in whether to use the egg white as well as the yolk and in which beating implement to use. They all agreed that the eggs should be at room temperature and that the oil should go in drop by drop until emulsification was achieved. Or not.

I had the opportunity to use each of the suggested beating implements (blender, food processor, mixer, whisk) and all the ingredients in every possible configuration because I MADE FIVE ATTEMPTS before I (sort-of) got it right. FIVE! What on Earth was I doing wrong? How do the Frenchies do it? The hardest bit is the drop by drop part but I managed to master that with the help of a drinking straw (patent pending).

Okay, well that sorry incident finally passed and, in the end, resulted in a very nice vitello tonnato. By then, my stubborn gene had kicked in and I knew that would not rest until I was able to make perfect mayonnaise. Mayo had become my labours of Hercules, my search for Moby Dick, my cutting down the mightiest tree in the forest with a herring, so to speak. And then I found this at The Healthy Foodie. It’s simple; it’s foolproof; no need for room temperature eggs; no need for any beating implement but the minipimer (meeniepeemerrr) a.k.a. the only kitchen tool you will ever really need; and it takes about 30 seconds. Thank you Healthy Foodie, for changing my life!





6 responses to “Vitello tonnato and a life-changing mayonnaise hack

  1. You seriously used the tasteless gunk that the “healthy foodie” recommends? I’m shocked.

    • Oil, lemon, egg and mustard. How is that tasteless? Wait until you try it. Then you’ll see.

      • The foodie bangs on about how you need to use ultralight olive oil.

        • Most mayo recipes recommend using 3/4 cup of a neutral oil (like ultralight or corn oil) and 1/4 EVOO. I know this because I have read all mayo recipes that exist. 100% EVOO makes it too heavy.

          • Those would be US mayo recipes. Mastering the Art, by the Blessed Julia, talks about “olive oil salad oil, or a mixture of both” without getting too specific. I personally like the taste of home-made mayo based on a full, fruity, peppery olive oil, but I also like all other sorts of mayo.

  2. Congrats – now that’s perseverance! Any excuse to use an ‘immersion blender’ (now to be forever dubbed meeniepeemerr).

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