Turning tuna into tasty sauce

Leave it to resourceful Italian cooks to turn a humble can of tuna into a savory sauce.

grilled tuna 88 (photo credit: )
grilled tuna 88
(photo credit: )
Leave it to resourceful Italian cooks to turn a humble can of tuna into a savory sauce. On my first visit to Rome, I was surprised to discover tuna sauces on restaurant menus. Tuna mayonnaise is served over cold veal in a classic Italian entree, vitello tonnato. Perhaps even more popular is a tuna sauce for pasta, which appears frequently on Italian tables. According to David Downie, author of Cooking the Roman Way, spaghetti alla carrettiera, or "cart drivers' spaghetti," was developed at Checco Il Carrettiere in Rome's Trastevere district. At this restaurant, where we first sampled spaghetti with tuna sauce, the cook added tomatoes and flavorful dried mushrooms to a sauce of tuna, garlic and hot chiles. Downie quoted the granddaughter of the inventor of the dish, who speculated that it may have been a Jewish recipe, noting that Trastevere "historically has always had a Jewish connection. This could be a kosher dish. It has no animal fats, pork or dairy products." It's true that Italian Jews like tuna sauces with pasta. In Wizo's La cucina nella tradizione ebraica (Cooking in the Hebrew tradition), spaghetti is sauced with tuna mixed with anchovies, capers and onions cooked in olive oil. Edda Servi Machlin, author of The Classic Cuisine of the Italian Jews, spoons a similar sauce over mini crepes. ariations pop up all over the southern half of the Boot. Suzanne Dunaway, author of Rome, at Home, makes her tuna sauce for spaghetti the same way but adds garlic and crushed hot red pepper to the onions, as well as tomato sauce and a squeeze of lemon juice. Green olives embellish the tuna-garlic-anchovy sauce for pasta in Anna and Piero Serra's La cucina della Campania, a comprehensive volume on the cooking of that southern Italian region that I bought in Naples in 1981. From nearby Capri comes spaghetti alla caprese with tuna, black olives and tomatoes, which, according to Micol Negrin, author of Rustico, is enriched with diced fresh mozzarella; she notes that "the savory tuna benefits from the creaminess of the mozzarella." In a Sicilian variation, the tuna-anchovy-tomato sauce accented with sauteed garlic and onion gains a festive finish of pine nuts and currants. Vincenzo Buonassisi, author of The Classic Book of Pasta, felt that tuna was so important for saucing pasta that he featured it in no less than eight sauces. "Add plenty of parsley," he noted with each one, probably because its freshness provides a pleasing balance for the fish. His creamy, no-cook tuna sauce couldn't be simpler - the only ingredients are ricotta cheese, olive oil and chopped onion. Nearly as easy is his macaroni with tuna, for which the mashed fish is blended with sauteed garlic, capers, black pepper and, of course, plenty of parsley. A richer tuna-tomato sauce includes anchovies and chopped almonds. He also prepared tuna-vegetable sauces. To a basic tuna-tomato-garlic sauce, you could add mushrooms, cooked broccoli or artichokes and white wine. Tuna is a healthful fish due to its Omega-3 fatty acids, and so remembering these Italian tricks for turning it into tasty sauces is worthwhile. The beauty of these flavorful sauces is their ease of preparation. Many require only ingredients from the pantry - at least, an Italian one. As with all ingredients, quality does matter. Most Italians recommend using the best Italian tuna packed in olive oil. But even if you have common tuna in water or in vegetable oil, you can doctor it up - drain it, pour on some fine olive oil and let the tuna marinate in the refrigerator for a few hours to absorb the good flavor. SPAGHETTI WITH ROMAN TUNA SAUCE Dried mushrooms, tomatoes and a generous amount of garlic flavor this tasty tuna sauce for pasta. For best results, David Downie advises saucing the pasta in the still-hot pot in which it was cooked. Lightly cooked broccoli makes a good accompaniment, or, to save on pots, cook broccoli florets with the spaghetti and toss them with the sauce. 55 gr. dried mushrooms or 225 gr. fresh 3 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste 1 small onion, chopped 6 large garlic cloves, minced 800 gr. can tomatoes, drained, chopped pinch of hot red pepper flakes 350 gr. spaghetti 200 gr. can tuna, preferably in olive oil 1 to 2 Tbsp. capers, rinsed 1⁄4 cup pitted green or black olives, coarsely chopped (optional) 3 Tbsp. chopped parsley or 1 Tbsp. basil If using dried mushrooms, soak them in warm water for 20 minutes or until softened. Remove from water and cut in bite-size pieces. If using fresh mushrooms, slice them. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a large skillet. Add onions and saute over medium-low heat until softened. Add mushrooms and a pinch of salt and saute about 3 minutes over medium heat. Add about half of garlic and saute 1⁄2 minute. Transfer to a plate. Add 1 tablespoon oil to skillet and heat over medium heat. Stir in remaining garlic, followed by tomatoes, pepper flakes, salt and pepper and cook for 10 minutes or until mixture is thick. Cook pasta uncovered in a large pot of boiling salted water over high heat, separating strands occasionally with fork, following package directions or until tender but firm to the bite. Drain, reserving 1⁄2 cup pasta water. Return pasta to its pot. Add tomato sauce, mushrooms, tuna, capers, olives and remaining tablespoon oil and toss over very low heat. If sauce is dry, add pasta water by tablespoons until it is just moist. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve sprinkled with parsley. Makes 4 or 5 main-course servings. Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast (HarperCollins) and Sensational Pasta (HP Books).