Sesame-crusted seared tuna with coconut sticky rice

Sesame-crusted tuna
Tuna steaks, sashimi-grade (prefer yellowfin) and skinless, 2-3
Soy sauce, 1/4 cup
Mirin, 1/4 cup
Fish sauce, 1 tbsp
Rice wine vinegar, 1/8 cup
Garlic, crushed and finely chopped, 1 clove
Shallot, finely chopped, 1
Hot red pepper flakes (or better yet, a powder made from hot peppers dried in the sun in Italy and ground by hand), 1/4 tsp
Salt, 1/2 tsp
Freshly ground pepper, 1/2 tsp
Sesame seeds, black and wine, about 1/4 cup
Sesame oil, at least 2 tbsp

Sticky rice
Jasmine rice, 1 cup
Coconut milk, 1 can (12 oz)
Sugar, 1/8-1/4 cup (depending on your sweet tooth)
Mango, ripe, chopped, 1

1. Whisk soy sauce and next eight ingredients (through freshly ground pepper). Bring marinade to room temperature.
2. Marinate tuna steaks (cover completely) approximately 1 hour - ideally, the tuna will also have come to room temperature by the time it's done marinating.
3. Bring coconut milk and sugar to a boil.
4. Add jasmine rice, reduce heat to low and cover, watching closely as it tends to boil over.
5. Cook until rice is tender and milk has reduced to a creamy consistency, about 20-30 minutes.
6. Transfer to serving dish and stir in mango. (Alternatively, you can slice the mango and serve it alongside the rice.)
7. Thoroughly coat steaks with sesame seeds - this is most easily done in the shallow bowl filled with seeds.
8. Heat sesame oil on high until shimmering. (The sesame oil is key; do not substitute another type of oil!)
9. Quickly sear all sides of each tuna steak, about 1-3 minutes per side, depending on your preferences.
10. Serve tuna with rice and baby greens dressed with soy and rice wine vinegar or roasted asparagus.

Serves: 2-3 people, usually with leftovers of sticky rice for breakfast the next day

The story:
This recipe evolved slowly and had a lot of contributors along the way. After spending my childhood as an astonishingly picky eater, I gradually, reluctantly began trying new foods in college. The summer after my third year, I worked as a pediatric research assistant. Several of my colleagues wanted to go out for sushi at the end of our first week. I planned to be brave and try everything, but I had only started eating mild cooked white fish and salmon in the previous year or two,  so when it came down to it, I balked and decided sticking with the smoked salmon would be safest. However, as it turned out, I was not the only member of the group new to the concept of raw fish and the restaurant quickly ran out of smoked salmon. So I ventured on to the sesame-seared tuna. A few years later (by which time I had come to believe that fish was meant to be eaten raw), I settled into the first apartment that was completely mine - no roommates! - and started cooking seriously and entertaining regularly. I tried to cook fish two or three times a week and improvised this recipe as a reliably delicious way to eat tuna that was almost (but not quite) as good as toro sashimi.

During the same summer - I like to think of it as the Summer of Food - my then-boyfriend's stepfather Mitch introduced me to Thai food. (As I write that, I can hardly believe that I made it to the age of 19 without tasting Thai food - my son first tried it around ten months.) He invited me on a date at Tida Thai, and when I walked in (and quickly buttoned my jacket up to my neck), I was surprised to see his mother and stepfather there. They lingered just until we ordered (and his stepdad had surreptitiously paid the bill), then left us to enjoy whole fish in red curry...and sticky coconut rice with mango, which happens to be the perfect companion for tender, savory, nutty tuna.

There is another story I have to add here - although it doesn't directly relate to the recipe, it belongs to the mythology of the Summer of Food. Many people have asked how I came to be so adventurous with food in spite of my origins as a child who took Granny Smith apples (wouldn't touch the red ones) and breadsticks to school for lunch and ordered filet mignon (with no sauce, no vegetables on the plate and any side of rice or potatoes NOT touching, God forbid) for every restaurant meal, without fail. About a week or two before my first taste of Thai, I spent the Fourth of July with my friend and his stepdad, on their boat. We stopped for lunch at the Lynnhaven Fish House where his stepdad proceeded to order the entire appetizer menu - steamed clams, mussels marinara, fried calamari, shrimp cocktail, and raw oysters. After rattling off what I remember to be at least a dozen dishes, Mitch looked at me and asked with perfect sincerity (he was one of the most generous people I ever met) what else I would like to add. I could not bring myself to admit that I had never tasted the majority of the dishes and probably would have been reluctant to sit at the same table as some of them not so long ago, so I just smiled and said that everything sounded great. And then I ate everything put in front of me. And loved it all (with the exception of a dubious oyster, but I eventually gave them a second chance too).

Many years later, I finally visited Thailand for the first time. Thank you, Mitch.

Real Thai home cooking, June 2010

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