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PAN-SEARED GULF TUNA This is a lighter approach to Cajun-style ``blackening,'' says Don Wexell, the Crescent Caf'e chef who concocted these recipes.

Tuna steaks (3/4- to 1-inch thick, about 6 1/2 oz. apiece; look for shiny-red flesh)

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Olive oil (enough to coat pan generously)

Spice mix: (for six steaks)

2 teaspoons crushed hot red pepper flakes

20 whole black peppercorns

20 whole white peppercorns

1 tablespoon paprika

1 tablespoon dried thyme

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1 teaspoon fennel seed

1 teaspoon cumin seed

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

Grind spices using a spice mill or coffee grinder (mortar and pestle or even mincing with a chef's knife can also work). Generously coat pan (preferably cast-iron) with olive oil. Heat olive oil on high until it starts to burn. Smoke will start to rise; oil will be extremely hot.

Rub tuna with spice mix. Carefully place in pan and sear for 1 1/2 minutes (2 minutes, if steak is 1 inch thick). Turn over and sear for another 1 1/2 minutes. This will cook the tuna to a medium rare. Cook longer if desired. (Tuna medium rare is moist and juicy; longer cooking time results in drier tuna.)

Serve immediately on a bed of mustard grits (below) on warm plates. Garnish with fresh chives and diced tomato.


Instant grits

1/4 cup Parmesan cheese, grated

2 tablespoons Creole mustard (substitute any other whole-seed mustard)

Salt, pepper, and Tabasco to taste

Prepare grits to make 2 cups. Add Parmesan cheese, mustard, salt, pepper, and Tabasco. Stir well. Serve immediately. If grits are a little stiff, add hot water to loosen. Makes enough to bed up to six tuna steaks.

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