[Photographs: Sasha Marx]
Labeling a dish “pantry-friendly” has become a selling point of late, even though it’s a pretty vague term that often doesn’t account for much of the cultural or culinary diversity that influences what fills our kitchen cupboards. The shelves of a well-stocked Jamaican pantry will look much different from those in a Korean household. But philosophically, the premise of a pantry-friendly recipe is universal: a simple, ideally quick-cooking dish, primarily composed of non-perishable ingredients. In Italy, where I grew up, pasta al tonno fits that criteria to a T.
Pasta al tonno is pretty self-explanatory—it’s pasta, with tuna—and a large part of its appeal is its adaptability. Unlike iconic pastas such as carbonara, there’s no prescriptive yet heavily debated ingredient list that you’ll get in trouble for deviating from when making this dish. You can find it “in bianco” (no tomato); with canned or fresh tomatoes; with olives; with capers; with anchovy; with chiles; with garlic or onion (but usually not both); with parsley or basil. Canned tuna and dried pasta are the only nonnegotiables.
No matter what, pasta al tonno has to be “facile e veloce” (easy and fast) to prepare. The version that I grew up with in Rome features spaghetti tossed with a quick garlic-infused tomato sauce. It gets a touch of heat from dried peperoncino, and is finished with flaked olive oil–packed tuna and a handful of chopped parsley.
It’s a simple and delicious balancing act between the brightness of tomatoes and the savory depth of canned tuna. Think of it as a less briny and divisive cousin to puttanesca. If you were to add porcini mushrooms to the mix you’d have a bowl of Roman-style spaghetti alla carrettiera. It’s easy to see all the exciting possibilities for riffs and variations.
Unlike puttanesca or carrettiera, though, this pasta al tonno doesn’t involve the punchy and intense flavors of capers, olives, and dried mushrooms that can hold their own against the bite of minced garlic. Here, whole garlic cloves are lightly crushed, browned in olive oil to more gently infuse it with their allium aroma, and then removed and discarded before building the tomato sauce. This is a classic Italian maneuver for getting some, but not too much, garlic flavor into a dish, when aglio e olio aren’t the stars of the show.
With the garlic out, a little dried chile goes in, followed by hand-crushed whole peeled tomatoes (this sauce is meant to have some texture to it, not passata smoothness). The sauce simmers for the few minutes it takes to boil pasta (spaghetti or, even better, spaghettoni, are my shape of choice for this dish) a minute shy of al dente. Right before making the pasta to sauce transfer, large flakes of tuna are stirred into the sauce along with an optional dash of fish sauce for a small umami boost. Folding the tuna into the sauce at the end ensures that it doesn’t get overworked into a gummy paste, keeping the pieces of fish intact.
The pasta and a ladleful of cooking water are added to the mix to finish cooking, marrying the noodles and sauce. This is a quick finish, with the sauce acting as more of a dressing to the pasta rather than the gravity blanket embrace of gricia, ‘nduja sugo, or starchy beans and greens. A showering of chopped parsley brings some much-needed freshness to the party, and that’s all there is to it—another pantry pasta to add to your repertoire.
Why It Works
- Toasting whole garlic cloves in olive oil lends the sauce a subtle allium aroma without distracting from the main flavors of the dish: bright tomatoes, savory tuna, and refreshing parsley.
- Gently incorporating large flakes of tuna into the sauce at the end of cooking ensures that the fish remains distinct, and doesn’t break down into an unappealing paste.
- Finishing the pasta in the sauce ensures that the noodles are well-coated and al dente.
What’s New On Serious Eats
- 3 tablespoons (45ml) extra-virgin olive oil
- 3 medium garlic cloves (15g), lightly crushed
- 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
- One 28-ounce (800g) can whole peeled tomatoes, coarsely crushed by hand
- Kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon (5ml) fish sauce (optional)
- 10 1/2 ounces (300g) olive oil-packed tuna, drained and gently flaked into 2-inch pieces (see note)
- 12 ounces (340g) dried long pasta such as spaghetti, spaghettoni, bucatini, or linguine
- 1 packed cup (3/4 ounce; 25g) flat-leaf parsley leaves and tender stems, finely chopped
In a large skillet or straight-sided sauté pan, combine oil and garlic. Cook over medium heat, turning garlic cloves occasionally, until garlic is deep golden brown on all sides, about 5 minutes. Using tongs or a slotted spoon, remove garlic from skillet; discard garlic. Add red pepper flakes and continue to cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 30 seconds.
Add tomatoes, season lightly with salt, and bring to a simmer. Cook, stirring occasionally, until oil is emulsified and sauce is thickened slightly, about 10 minutes. Reduce heat to medium-low, add fish sauce (if using) and tuna, and stir gently until just incorporated into sauce, taking care to keep pieces of tuna as intact as possible.
Meanwhile, in a pot of salted boiling water, cook pasta until just shy of al dente (about 2 minutes less than the package directs). Using tongs, transfer pasta to sauce, along with 1/4 cup (60ml) pasta cooking water. Alternatively, drain pasta using a colander or fine-mesh strainer, making sure to reserve at least 1 cup (240ml) pasta cooking water.
Increase heat to high and cook, stirring and tossing rapidly, until pasta is al dente and sauce is thickened and coats noodles, 1 to 2 minutes, adding more pasta cooking water in 1/4 cup (60ml) increments as needed to adjust consistency of sauce. Remove from heat, add parsley, and stir to combine. Season with salt to taste. Serve immediately.
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