Ground Tuna Is the Star of this Hearty Lasagna Recipe From Josh Niland’s ‘Take One Fish’
Josh Niland’s first cookbook, The Whole Fish Cookbook, won two James Beard Awards in 2019, for best restaurant and professional book, and cookbook of the year — a title that introduced it to a broader audience than was perhaps anticipated. “It’s one of those books where you pick it up and are like, ‘Oh my gosh.’ Every page is kind of intense, from fish offal through the aging and charcuterie and even the turducken. There’s a lot in there that is a little bit in your face,” Niland says. “But I did set out to write something somewhat provocative because without provocation you don’t make inroads into effecting any kind of change.” The change he had in mind: A nose-to-tail approach to fish.
With his second book, Niland continues to implore cooks to use all parts of the fish but without the same level of professional intensity. “It was to approach this far more joyfully, less exhaustively, and to just make people hungry,” Niland says. With photography from Rob Palmer, the finished work certainly does just that.
As the title implies, Take One Fish focuses on the many possibilities that can arise from utilizing all the parts of a single fish. The chapters are divided by species; there are 15 of them, beginning with the extra-small, like sardines and herring, and ending with extra-large, including tuna and swordfish. They were chosen for optimal global availability (except for the very Australian coral trout; “That was more in there just for me,” Niland says), and there are suggested substitutes for each. But even as it aims for accessibility, the book is also in keeping with Niland’s broader mission of changing the way home cooks think about buying and cooking fish.
“You can ask those who cut your fish to behave in a similar way to [meat butchers],” Niland says. In his ideal world, fish shops would create appealing products from the less salable parts of the fish so as to ensure every part of the fish is used, thus reducing the number of fish that get taken from the water. This is precisely why he calls the part of his Sydney restaurant that prepares and sells fish a fish butchery. “A butcher is somebody who dresses and prepares an animal in readiness to be consumed and bring desirability to that product, whereas a monger and ‘fish mongery’ is derived from someone who deals and trades in fish as a commodity. And for us to continue to view fish as a commodity is completely neglectful.”
The benefits of treating fish more like meat aren’t only economical and environmental —Take One Fish proves that they’re gustatory, too. This is exemplified in dishes like the tuna lasagna, which takes “the sinewy, muscly parts that sit on the sides of those more desirable, circular loins,” grinds them up, treating the result like ground beef or pork, and layering it in between noodles and sauce. Niland has used the same technique for tuna koftas, mapo tofu, and laab. But it’s also worth noting that there’s more to Take One Fish than fish recipes. Within its pages you’ll find recipes for Yorkshire pudding, blinis, an elegant potato tart, and more, along with the knowledge to cook confidently and thoughtfully with any number of primary proteins. First, though, here’s that lasagna.
Tuna Lasagna Recipe
Now, the thought of this might make you cringe but, trust me, this is one recipe you’ll want to cook again and again. The texture and appearance of the tuna mince will have you second-guessing whether it is actually fish and will certainly break you out of the chicken/veal/pork loop. It should also be noted that I don’t expect anyone to be mincing down sashimi-grade yellowfin tuna belly or the center cut of a potential tuna steak here — instead, you’re looking to use the sinew-heavy area or scrappy chunks that come away from behind the tuna head at the top of the loin, along with any tail cuts and scrapings from the frame of the fish. These are the bits that often get tossed away at the markets because of a perceived lack of customer interest, so it’s great to find a good use for them. Ask your fishmonger or market vendor for them next time you’re shopping.
8 dried lasagna sheets
1 cup (31⁄2 ounces/100 grams) finely grated Parmesan
1⁄3 cup (13⁄4 ounces/50 grams) finely grated mozzarella
For the ragu:
1⁄2 bunch of thyme
1 fresh bay leaf
1 teaspoon black peppercorns, toasted
1 star anise
10 fluid ounces (300 milliliters) grapeseed oil
3 garlic cloves, finely grated
Sea salt flakes and freshly cracked black pepper
1 large onion, finely diced
1 large carrot, finely diced
1 small fennel bulb, finely diced
1 teaspoon tomato paste
5 fluid ounces (150 milliliters) red wine
7 ounces (200 grams) tinned peeled tomatoes, crushed
1 cup (81⁄2 fluid ounces/250 milliliters) water
9 ounces (250 grams) ground yellowfin tuna
For the bechamel:
2 cups (17 fluid ounces/500 milliliters) whole milk
1 Parmesan rind
13⁄4 ounces (50 grams) butter
1⁄3 cup (13⁄4 ounces/50 grams) all-purpose flour
Freshly grated nutmeg, to taste
Sea salt flakes and freshly cracked black pepper
Step 1: To make the ragu, tie the thyme, bay leaf, peppercorns, and star anise in a piece of cheesecloth to make a bouquet garni.
Step 2: Heat 5 fluid ounces (150 milliliters) of the grapeseed oil in a large heavy-based frying pan over a medium heat, add the garlic and a pinch of salt, and saute for 30 seconds. Add the onion and another pinch of salt and cook for 10 minutes, or until the onion is translucent and just beginning to color. Add the carrot, fennel, and another good pinch of salt and cook for a further 10 minutes until softened, stirring every few minutes to ensure nothing sticks to the base and burns.
Step 3: Stir in the tomato paste and fry for 2 minutes, then add the bouquet garni and red wine. Bring to a simmer and cook until reduced and thickened to a glaze consistency, about 10 minutes. Add the crushed tomato and water and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to very low and simmer gently for 45 minutes, or until the sauce is thickened, reduced, and fragrant. Season to taste with salt and pepper and set aside.
Step 4: Heat 21⁄2 fluid ounces (75 milliliters) of the remaining oil in a cast-iron skillet or frying pan over a medium heat to a light haze. Add half the tuna and fry, stirring to separate the strands, until colored. Season lightly with salt and pepper, then add to the tomato sauce. Repeat with the remaining oil and tuna, and stir everything well to combine. Leave to cool completely, then transfer to the fridge until you are ready to assemble the lasagna.
Step 5: For the bechamel, place the milk and Parmesan rind in a medium saucepan over a medium heat. Bring to a gentle simmer, then reduce the heat to low and keep warm for 20 minutes, to allow the flavor of the parmesan to infuse the milk.
Step 6: Melt the butter in a separate saucepan over a medium heat. Add the flour and cook for 2 minutes, stirring with a wooden spoon to form a roux. Remove the parmesan rind from the milk, then gradually add to the roux, one-third at a time, whisking after each addition to create a smooth sauce. When you have incorporated all the milk, bring the sauce to a boil, then remove from the heat, stir in a little grated nutmeg, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Closely cover the sauce with plastic wrap or parchment to stop a skin forming, then refrigerate until completely cold.
Step 7: Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Step 8: To assemble the lasagna, spoon a layer of the tuna ragu over the base of a 1.5-quart baking dish. Cover with a layer of bechamel, then a layer of lasagna sheets. Repeat the process with the remaining ingredients, finishing with a layer of bechamel. Sprinkle over the grated cheeses in a generous blanket and cover with aluminum foil.
Step 9: Bake for 30 minutes, then remove the foil and cook for another 10 minutes until golden brown and bubbling on top, and the pasta is tender when tested with a skewer in the center. Remove from the oven and rest for 10 minutes before serving, perhaps with a fresh salad of green leaves and herbs.
Recipes excerpted with permission from Take One Fish by Josh Niland, published by Hardie Grant Books, August 2021.