- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Midwinter is one of the best times of year to enjoy fish. By mid-February, many people who have resolved to eat healthfully are looking for renewed inspiration, which seafood can provide. And cold temperatures make it all the easier for home cooks to shop for and enjoy the freshest of fish.

You could say that I like some of my fish especially fresh - that is to say, barely cooked.

More and more chefs and home cooks have begun to realize that undercooking most fish ever so slightly - not so much that it’s raw in the center, but barely translucent and moist - gives the best results, leaving it succulent and tender. Popular fillets such as sea bass, halibut and black cod benefit very well from this kind of treatment.

One kind of fish, however, I like to serve and eat rare: tuna, especially such premium varieties as ahi or bluefin. Sushi chefs have taught us how delicious absolutely fresh tuna can be when it’s served raw. And when cooked, tuna fillets - being as dense in texture, deep-red in color, and satisfyingly flavored as beefsteaks - also benefit from undercooking, like beef. Sear tuna to rare or medium-rare, and it’s one of the most sensuous forms of seafood you can enjoy. Overcook it, however, and you might as well open a can of tuna fish!

When you’re shopping for fresh tuna, always head for the best local seafood source you know, one that devotes itself to cleanliness and quality and has a rapid turnover of product. The tuna should be bright and clear in color, look firm to the touch, and have a fresh, clean ocean scent. Often, the best tuna available in markets will be labeled “sushi grade.” Keep it in the coldest part of your refrigerator, and cook it the same day.

With my seared tuna, I like to create a true Pacific Rim dish by combining California-style Chardonnay cream sauce with a dab of wasabi, the spicy green Japanese horseradish paste traditionally served alongside sushi. Many supermarkets sell wasabi, either in powdered form in the Asian foods section or prepared in a refrigerated case offering boxes of sushi; and I’ve even seen wasabi powder in the regular seasonings aisle, among jars of conventional Western spices.

Speaking of spices, I also coat my seared tuna before cooking with freshly crushed black and white peppercorns and coriander seeds. The mixture adds delightful flavor contrasts similar to those you get in a classic steak au poivre.

Cut into bite-sized slices that reveal the fillets’ ruby-red center and served atop the pale-green sauce, the fish is not only intensely satisfying but offers such freshly, lively flavors that, in the midst of winter, you’ll feel like springtime can’t be too far away.

PAN-SEARED AHI TUNA WITH WASABI CREAM SAUCE

Makes 4 servings

1 1/2 tablespoons black, white, or mixed whole peppercorns

3/4 teaspoon whole coriander seeds

2 pounds (500 g) fresh ahi tuna fillets

1 cup (250 ml) Chardonnay

1 cup (250 ml) heavy cream

1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

1/2 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste, if necessary

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into pieces

2 to 3 teaspoons wasabi powder, or more to taste, stirred with 1 to 2 teaspoons water to form a paste; or 2 to 3 teaspoons prepared wasabi paste

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

Put the peppercorns and coriander seeds in a heavy-duty plastic freezer bag and place the bag on a work surface. Gently pound them with a rolling pin or the bottom of a heavy skillet to break them into coarse pieces.

Spread the cracked peppercorns and coriander seeds on a plate. Firmly press the tuna fillets into them to coat them all over with the spice mixture. Set aside.

To make the sauce, bring the Chardonnay to a boil in a medium saucepan over high heat and continue boiling until it has reduced by half its volume, 5 to 10 minutes. Stir in the cream and continue boiling several minutes more until the sauce is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Stir in the lemon juice and salt.

Reduce the heat to a simmer and, using a whisk, beat in the butter a piece at a time until the sauce is thick and glossy. Whisk in at least 2 teaspoons of the wasabi paste and continue stirring until it dissolves thoroughly. Taste the sauce and, if necessary, add a little more salt or wasabi.

Heat the olive oil in a nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. When the pan is hot, add the tuna fillets and cook them until done rare to medium-rare, as you prefer, 1 minute or a little longer on each side. Remove from the heat and cut crosswise into slices 1/3 to 1/2 inch (9 to 12 mm) thick.

Spoon the sauce attractively onto individual heated serving plates or a platter. Arrange the slices of tuna overlapping on top of the sauce. Serve immediately.

(Chef Wolfgang Puck’s TV series, “Wolfgang Puck’s Cooking Class,” airs Sundays on the Food Network. Also, his latest cookbook, “Wolfgang Puck Makes It Easy,” is now available in bookstores. Write Wolfgang Puck in care of Tribune Media Services Inc., 2225 Kenmore Ave., Suite 114, Buffalo, N.Y. 14207.)


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