Today we have a super quick “non recipe” for you: mousse di tonno or Tunafish Mousse. It involves no cooking at all and, assuming you have a food processor, takes practically no time at all to whip up. And it’s perfectly delicious.
To make mousse di tonno, you simply purée canned tunafish together with a spreadable dairy product, the most “old school”—and in my opinion still the best—option being softened butter. But you can also opt for a spreadable cheese like cream cheese or mascarpone, or ricotta. A few anchovies and capers usually go in, too, for extra umami, sometimes a few drops of lemon juice for brightness. That’s literally all there is to it. Calculate five minutes prep if you’re taking your time. Two minutes is probably more like it, including the trip to the pantry to fetch the ingredients.
Mousse di tonno is incredibly versatile, too. It’s usually classified as an antipasto, but I like to keep some on hand in my fridge—it keeps for at least a week—for times when I’m feeling a bit peckish and want something to nibble on as a snack or with drinks before dinner. Just let your mousse come back to room temperature, then serve it with toasted bread, crackers or crudités. Or if you want a more elegant presentation, you can use mousse di tonno to fill vol-au-vent or to make canapés. And you can even use it in some cooked preparations (see Notes below for details).
In short, mousse di tonno is a kind of culinary ace in your back pocket. It’s definitely worth including in your repertoire!
- 1 large (200g/7oz) can tunafish packed in olive oil, about 150g/2 oz when drained
- 100g (3-1/2 oz) butter brought to room temperature until soft (or mascarpone, cream cheese or ricotta)
- 1-2 anchovy fillets
- 1 Tb capers, rinsed and dried
- A few drops of freshly squeezed lemon juice, to taste (optional)
Drain the tunafish of its oil and add to the bowl of a food processor, along with the softened butter (or mascarpone, cream cheese or ricotta), anchovy, capers and, if using, a few drops of lemon juice.
Process until smooth and fluffy.
Serve at room temperature.
Making mousse di tonno is stupidly simple, more of a technique than a proper recipe. But there are a few things to look out for. Perhaps most important, if you’re using butter that’s been in the fridge, make sure to let it return to room temperature so it is soft enough to purée properly. This will take a while, 45-60 minutes. And when it comes to processing, take some time with it. Not a lot, but more than you might think. At first, you’ll get a rather rough mixture, which is not what you want. You should keep processing until you get perfectly smooth, creamy and fluffy purée as pictured above.
Choosing the Right Ingredients
As with any no cook dish like this, the quality of the ingredients will be directly reflected in the end product. The tuna, of course, is the most crucial, and if you wanted to splurge on top quality Italian or Spanish tuna, you’ll be richly rewarded. Having said that, any decent quality tuna, so long as it’s packed in olive oil, will do just fine. Cultured butter will provide better flavor than the regular aka ‘sweet’ type. I’m fond of Irish butter, which is quite reasonably priced as compared with other European butters sold here in the US.
As mentioned in last week’s post, hand dipped ricotta is wonderful if you can find and afford it. And as for the cream cheese, good old Philadelphia brand is still the best in my opinion, and the one you’d coincidentally find in Italy. (Indeed, Italians will call any cream cheese formaggio Philadelphia, or “Philadelphia cheese”.)
Butter or Spreadable Cheese?
Which dairy product is best? I did some taste testing so you don’t need to, and here are my (admittedly highly subjective) impressions, in the order of preference:
- Butter. The classic and still the best choice by far if you ask me. Butter gives the mousse a beautifully creamy texture—ironically even creamier than cream cheese—and, of course, a lovely buttery flavor. It even had the most appealing golden hue. If you’re using butter, you can use less than indicated above, perhaps in a 1:2 ratio to the drained tuna by weight. Some recipes, like the one in Marcella Hazan’s 1986 Marcella’s Italian Kitchen, reduce it even further, using only 1:3. A good thing since butter is the most calorie dense option at 717 calories for each 100g. The other drawback is that butter hardens when chilled so if you keep it in the fridge, you’ll need at least 45 minutes to bring it back to its proper texture, making it less suitable for last minute use.
- Cream cheese or mascarpone. These two came in tied for second in my taste test. Both provided a nice, creamy texture, though surprisingly not as creamy as the butter. They tasted quite similar, although the cream cheese provided a slightly milder flavor than the mascarpone, which had a bit of a tang to it. If you can find it, whipped cream cheese works very well in this dish. These options, especially the mascarpone, made for the lightest colored mousse, almost white. These options are also lighter than butter in calories. Cream cheese has 342 calories per 100g, mascarpone 435 calories.
- Ricotta. A definite “meh” in my book. I considered not even including it in this post, but it’s so common in recipes for mousse di tonno I though I should, if only to warn your off it. The texture of the mousse is rather dense and grainy, not terribly appealing if you ask me. And the taste is rather bland. If you do use ricotta, you should add the optional lemon juice. It will brighten the flavor and lighten the texture. One advantage: this is the most ‘dietetic’ option, as 100g of ricotta has only 174 calories.
Recipes vary wildly as to the amount of dairy, but most recipes call for less dairy by weight than tuna. I found that, with the exception of the butter, you can’t go lower than a 1:2 ratio. Otherwise, the texture of the mousse will suffer. But you can definitely increase the dairy to tuna ratio to 1:1 by weight, or even more if you want to ‘stretch’ the tuna or just want a milder tasting mousse.
Additional ingredients sometimes crop up in recipes for mousse di tonno. A few spoonfuls of mayo along with the butter, which I assume is there to lend some extra ‘silkyness’, or Greek yoghurt mixed with the cream cheese, to give just two examples.
Obviously there’s a lot you can do to play around with the flavorings, beyond the standard anchovy and caper. I’ve seen Italian recipes calling for chopped olives, lemon zest and oregano. I even saw one recipe from a major US-based website that calls for balsamic vinegar and soy sauce. Eww. Che schifo!, as the Italians would say…
Most classic is toasted bread, especially sliced baguettes, but crackers will also do the job. And if you’re eating low carb, then sliced carrots, celery, radishes and other crudités make for a nice change. You can also use mousse di tonno to fill a vol-au-vent. Garnish if you like with a bit of tomato, an olive, a curled up anchovy fillet, capers, pimentos, salmon roe… the sky’s the limit.
Besides doing duty as a dip or spread, mousse di tonno also makes for a really lovely no cook pasta sauce. Just place some in the bottom of a pre-heated bowl, pour in well-drained cooked pasta (short shapes like penne or shells work best) and mix vigorously, adding a bit of the pasta water if needed. Mousse di tonno also makes for a nice filling for a savory zeppole in lieu of the usual anchovy.
Mousse di tonno
- 1 large can tunafish packed in olive oil about 150g/2 oz when drained
- 100 3-1/2 oz butter brought to room temperature until soft (or mascarpone, cream cheese or ricotta)
- 1-2 anchovy fillets
- 1 Tb capers rinsed and dried
- A few drops of freshly squeezed lemon juice, to taste optional
- Drain the tunafish of its oil and add to the bowl of a food processor, along with the softened butter (or mascarpone, cream cheese or ricotta), anchovy, capers and, if using, a few drops of lemon juice.
- Process until smooth and fluffy.
- Serve at room temperature.