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We Didn't Travel, but This Sesame-Crusted Ahi Tuna With Spinach Did

by 
LaVonne Roberts
July 21, 2021

My family is food-mad. 

We’ve lived all over the world and accumulated friends and a love for other cultures. Each of us considers ourselves to be a better food critic than the other. We all love Frank Bruni’s words as much as his gastronomic history. Some people collect watches, we collect cookbooks, truffle shavers, and paella pans. We plan road trips and vacations around culinary adventures, debate over the science behind our favorite dishes — like why a frittata rises and egg whites fall when over-whipped. We swap recipes and quibble over chef’s methods. Mostly, we try to get at what’s authentic about a particular culture’s dish and trace its roots., Sometimes we just get creative and merge our expertise and tastes to put our own imprint on dishes we like. 

For us, home is synonymous with delicious and food is a home’s soul. 

One evening, suffering from cabin fever, I asked my daughter, “What if we could visit our friends — anywhere in the world. Where would we go?” I asked. I answered my question when I took our quarantined gastronomic adventure one step further when we started cooking with our closest friends on Zoom.

I was prepared for the pandemic when it arrived in New York City because my friend Debra was already weeks into lockdown in Milan. Rather than talking about how scared we were, Debra shared her favorite new Italian recipes. As fate would have it, her daughter lived down the street from me in Manhattan, so our cooking was a way to keep our two families connected. Italian aromas of basil and garlic helped bridge the gap between Milan and Manhattan. 

Helen, a foodie friend who lives in Montreal, was cooking her way around the world by randomly choosing countries and researching typical dishes, which she recreated with her 21-year-old daughter. Both our families began sharing recipes and talking about our love of food. When I asked her about her favorite discovery, Helen told me about Chicken Mandi, a specialty from Yemen, which soon became a favorite in my house. “Isn’t it crazy?” said my daughter, “I feel like we’ve known them forever, and we’ve never been to their home.”

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Another friend, Yassmin, in Laguna Beach, taught Helen and me how to make Persian rice after sending me a care package of all the Iranian spices I needed to make Persian wedding rice. Our conversations sparked my buying her cookbook recommendations and learning to store saffron water in my fridge. On one Zoom call, Yassmin explained that the best saffron comes from Iran, and to beware, most are counterfeits. A week later, Helen and I received Persian saffron in the mail--another Yassi care package.

When winter came and COVID-19 cases spiked, my daughter and I built gingerbread houses virtually with my friend Suzanne, who lives in Santa Barbara. Laughing while our roofs collapsed and gluing on candy, we talked about how building the houses felt like a life raft, surprisingly calming us. Another online get-together, Suzanne shared her grandmother’s secret enchilada red sauce. Covered in lime juice, with watery eyes from dealing with chilis, we looked into the camera and held our margarita glasses up to make a toast, “until we don’t have 3,000 miles between us--bottoms up.” 

Cooking allowed me to focus on tangible things at a time when the bombarding news brought nothing but sadness. Tantalizing smells and appetizing visuals sparked numerous conversations. Helen and I talked about how cooking was a language when words failed. Debra and I recounted memories all over Italy and France. Yassmin reminded me of the art of thoughtful gift-giving, and Suzanne brought a book club and shared stories to our weekly get-togethers.

Strangely, the most popular dish between my friends wasn’t a recreation of one of my favorite culinary trips, but rather my daughter’s and my take on a part salad, part sushi bowl. It was a mish-mash of influences and experiences, as well as based on what we had on hand. In our house, we always have spinach, sushi rice, and the condiments necessary to make an Asian-influenced sauce, so finding sushi-grade tuna available led to our random creation. Now, every time I make it, I think of all my meals shared with friends, grateful for our connection throughout the pandemic. 

Sesame-Crusted Ahi Tuna Bowls With Spinach and Soy Ginger Lime Sauce

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Serves 4

Ingredients

This incredibly easy-to-make dish comprises three elements: a sauce, seared tuna, and a base of salad or a grain. I vary the dish, depending on what I have on hand. For example, sometimes, I’ll add quinoa. The beauty of the sauce is that it can be easily adapted to an individual taste, made sweeter by adding more honey, acidic by adding more lime, or spicier by amping up the jalapeño.

For Tuna

16 oz. sashimi-grade ahi tuna steak (4 oz per person)

1/2 cup each of black and white sesame seeds

Kosher salt

Cracked black pepper

For Soy Ginger Lime Sauce 

4 tbsp soy sauce 

2 tsp sesame oil 

2 tbsp lime juice 

1 1/2 tsp fresh ginger, grated

1 1/2 tbsp honey or agave

1/2 garlic clove, grated

1/2 a jalapeño, thinly sliced (less spicy) or minced (more spice) — use as little or much of the jalapeño depending on the spice level  

1 tbsp rice wine vinegar

For Serving

1 5 oz. package of Fifth Season spinach

 | 
 | 
Serves 4

Ingredients

This incredibly easy-to-make dish comprises three elements: a sauce, seared tuna, and a base of salad or a grain. I vary the dish, depending on what I have on hand. For example, sometimes, I’ll add quinoa. The beauty of the sauce is that it can be easily adapted to an individual taste, made sweeter by adding more honey, acidic by adding more lime, or spicier by amping up the jalapeño.

For Tuna

16 oz. sashimi-grade ahi tuna steak (4 oz per person)

1/2 cup each of black and white sesame seeds

Kosher salt

Cracked black pepper

For Soy Ginger Lime Sauce 

4 tbsp soy sauce 

2 tsp sesame oil 

2 tbsp lime juice 

1 1/2 tsp fresh ginger, grated

1 1/2 tbsp honey or agave

1/2 garlic clove, grated

1/2 a jalapeño, thinly sliced (less spicy) or minced (more spice) — use as little or much of the jalapeño depending on the spice level  

1 tbsp rice wine vinegar

For Serving

1 5 oz. package of Fifth Season spinach

Ingredients

This incredibly easy-to-make dish comprises three elements: a sauce, seared tuna, and a base of salad or a grain. I vary the dish, depending on what I have on hand. For example, sometimes, I’ll add quinoa. The beauty of the sauce is that it can be easily adapted to an individual taste, made sweeter by adding more honey, acidic by adding more lime, or spicier by amping up the jalapeño.

For Tuna

16 oz. sashimi-grade ahi tuna steak (4 oz per person)

1/2 cup each of black and white sesame seeds

Kosher salt

Cracked black pepper

For Soy Ginger Lime Sauce 

4 tbsp soy sauce 

2 tsp sesame oil 

2 tbsp lime juice 

1 1/2 tsp fresh ginger, grated

1 1/2 tbsp honey or agave

1/2 garlic clove, grated

1/2 a jalapeño, thinly sliced (less spicy) or minced (more spice) — use as little or much of the jalapeño depending on the spice level  

1 tbsp rice wine vinegar

For Serving

1 5 oz. package of Fifth Season spinach

Directions

For Tuna

1. Combine white and black sesame seeds with salt and pepper on a plate or shallow bowl.

2. Rub sesame oil on all sides of the tuna, season with additional salt and pepper, then coat all sides with the sesame seeds mixture.

3. Heat light olive oil or neutral oil in a large skillet over high heat.

4. Sear each side of the sesame-crusted tuna for approximately 30 seconds per side, searing the outside of the ahi tuna and toasting the sesame seeds.

5. Remove the tuna, place it on a cutting board, and use your sharpest knife to slice the tuna into thin slices.

For Soy Ginger Lime Sauce 

Combine all ingredients in a bowl and whisk, or add all to a food processor and pulse. You can also grind all dry ingredients in a mortar and pestle and then combine with the liquids. 

Other Condiment Options for Serving

Sushi Rice: I use a rice cooker ahead of time.

Avocado: I slice my personal favorite — avocados, a staple in our house.

Green Onions: I add thinly-sliced chopped green onions to add texture and flavor.

Cucumbers: I chop up small Persian cucumbers when available..

Pomegranate seeds as a garnish

About the Author

LaVonne Roberts

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