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IN THE KITCHEN

Take It Inside

July 01, 1998|RUSS PARSONS

My dictionary defines picnic as: "A meal that might have been perfectly nice indoors but is eaten outdoors instead so that you can get a sunburn, eat lukewarm food and fish bugs out of your wine, all at the same time."

If it weren't for the pro-picnic lobby, everyone else's dictionary would say the same thing.

With the start of summer, people are nattering on about the joy of picnics as if they'd just discovered the out-of-doors. It's not as if it hasn't been here all along. El Nino or not, we're not living in Minnesota.

Don't get me wrong, nature is fine in its place. But it's a poor substitute for a comfortable dining room, hot food and insect-free beverages.

Still, that goes against today's flow. To listen to the picnickistas, there is nothing more conducive to romance than dining on the dirt. They evoke visions of couples, young and in love, sharing the shade some spring afternoon on a checkered tablecloth. A loaf of bread, a jug of wine . . . all of that.

I say, humbug. Granted, picnics may be OK when you're young and in love. (When I was young and in love, I even pretended to like watching figure skating.) But there are liberties that come with being old and married (and, yes, dear, still in love). Along with being free to play with my computer when Michelle Kwan is on TV comes not having to fake an affection for al fresco.

Trust me, there's no dish yet invented that tastes better outdoors than in, this one included. In fact, my theory is that picnics were invented primarily to provide a distraction from mediocre cooking. Compared to mosquito bites, no food is that bad.

But just because you're eating outside, you don't have to eat bad food. This recipe, which can be served either as a sandwich or by itself (inside or outside), is a good example.

The idea of turkey in tuna sauce is just a little weird, so we'll Mediterranean-ize it: turkey tonnato (or, if you prefer, tacchino tonnato, which a friend points out sounds like one of the endearments Kevin Kline whispered to Jamie Lee Curtis in "A Fish Called Wanda").

This is based on an old Italian veal dish from Piedmont called vitello tonnato and takes advantage of the fact that turkey--like veal--has very little flavor of its own. Mostly, it is a moist, bland meat that is a perfect foil for this lightly tangy mayonnaise-based sauce.

By the way, for those who think of canned tuna as some recent aberration: preserved tuna, originally put up in glass, has been a staple of the mountainous, landlocked Piedmont for centuries, a result of trade routes with the Riviera.

To keep the meat moist, roast it in a fairly slow oven (to keep it from drying out the outside), only to an internal temperature of 160 degrees. That's slightly lower than the USDA's recommended internal temperature of 165 degrees, but given a 10-minute rest after roasting, the reserved heat will push the temperature above 165. At this temperature the meat will be safe but still moist.

After the roasting is finished, chill the meat while it is still rolled and tied so that the muscle fibers will relax in this shape. This way, you'll have nice round slices that will stay in a circle.

The sauce itself is fairly instant. Just blend the canned fish into a puree and fold it into mayonnaise. Somehow it doesn't wind up tasting fishy but rather fresh and tart.

The one remaining imperative with this dish is to let the sliced meat sit in the sauce at least a couple of hours so the flavors meld. It's even better if you can leave it refrigerated overnight, which leaves you only a quick assembly job the next day when the great outdoors beckons.

Even if there are some calls you, like me, would rather leave unanswered.

TURKEY TONNATO SANDWICH

Salt, pepper

1 (2- to 2 1/2-pound) turkey breast half, boned, rolled and tied

Olive oil

1 (6-ounce) can tuna in olive oil, undrained

4 to 6 anchovy fillets in olive oil, drained

Juice of 1 lemon

1 cup mayonnaise

1/4 cup capers, drained

1 large flat ciabatta loaf or other flat round bread

2 ounces arugula

Salt and pepper turkey breast to taste and rub with enough olive oil to coat meat. Place on rack in roasting pan and cook at 300 degrees until instant-read thermometer inserted in breast reaches 160 degrees, about 1 1/2 hours. Let rest 10 minutes at room temperature.

Remove breast from rack and immediately wrap tightly in foil. Chill several hours or overnight.

Puree tuna and anchovies in blender. Add 1/3 cup olive oil in thin stream with motor running to make smooth emulsion, scraping down sides as necessary. Add lemon juice and pulse to combine. Taste: Mixture should be very tangy; if necessary, add more lemon juice. If anchovies aren't salty enough, add salt to taste.

Place mayonnaise in mixing bowl and pour tuna mixture over top. Whisk to combine. Add capers and whisk briefly just to mix.

Pour half of tonnato sauce onto large platter and spread evenly across bottom. Remove turkey from refrigerator, unwrap and cut strings. Cut into 1/8- to 1/4-inch-thick slices, placing each slice on platter, overlapping to make all fit. Spoon remaining sauce evenly over top. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 2 hours or overnight.

To prepare sandwiches, cut ends from ciabatta loaf and slice in half horizontally, leaving halves attached along 1 long side. Arrange turkey slices on bread and spoon over just enough sauce from platter to moisten meat. Scatter arugula over top and close sandwich. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap and then in foil. Refrigerate until ready to take to picnic. Slice before serving.

8 to 10 servings. Each of 10 servings:

402 calories; 694 mg sodium; 60 mg cholesterol; 16 grams fat; 80 grams carbohydrates; 27 grams protein; 0.11 gram fiber.

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