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Cooking Off the Cuff: For a Quick Pasta Dinner, Open a Can of Tuna

You could make this with a regular storage onion and even with frozen peas. And maybe I will some time as a reminder of our lovely summer pasta.
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There's nothing new about using canned fish to make a flavorful pasta meal, such as sardines for an ersatz but delicious version of the Sicilian pasta con le sarde. And how many bowls of pasta with canned tuna have come to the rescue when the cook is low on energy and the pantry low on ingredients?

That said, I wasn't particularly low on either when I made pasta with canned tuna last week. The trigger was half a cup of shelled peas in the fridge left uncooked from another meal: nowhere nearly enough for a proper side dish, let alone a whole dinner for two. Pasta came to mind, as it often does. I thought at first about tagliatelle with peas, ham, cream and Parmesan (a fine thing) but didn't feel like a creamy, cheesy dish. I wanted ingredients that were full of flavor but were lighter and not so distinctive as to overpower the peas. So tuna made its entrance.

Besides the peas, I'd bought some particularly young, juicy and sweet onions at the farmers' market, and one of these would round out the flavors. For a bit of textural contrast, I took a quarter cup of pine nuts out of the freezer (they're best stored there, tightly sealed, to fend off the rancidity to which they are prone) and toasted them in a little frying pan over low heat, stirring every now and then to make sure they weren't burning. And for a reminder of Sicily (where this dish wouldn't seem out of place) I stemmed a handful of fresh mint leaves and roughly tore them into pieces.

While a pot of salted water was coming up to the boil for the pasta (penne or ziti would be just right - or farfalle, come to think of it), I halved one of those juicy onions, sliced it fairly thick and sautéed it in olive oil, with salt. The purpose was not to brown the onion, just to get it properly cooked but with a remnant of bite. By this time, the water was boiling, and I added two portions of penne (200 grams / 7 oz).

As it boiled, I stirred the peas into the onion; they were fresh and tender, and they needed no liquid beyond their own and the onion's. After a minute or so, I drained a small (2.8-ounce / 80-g) can of tuna packed in olive oil and added it to the onion-pea mixture, combining it well without mashing it to a paste. I stirred in the toasted pine nuts and removed the skillet from the heat to await the pasta. When this was cooked, I drained it (though not too thoroughly) and, over medium heat, added it to the skillet, along with the mint leaves and a good grinding of black pepper. If it had seemed dry, I'd have splashed in some pasta-cooking water or perhaps a tablespoonful of olive oil, but the onions and tuna contributed plenty of moisture.

This was just the dinner Jackie and I had been after. Not too much of any one ingredient (those one-sandwich cans of tuna are handy to have around) and a good set of flavors laid over an onion foundation; there was quite a bit of sweetness in the dish from the peas and onions, but it somehow needed no acidic counterbalance (I tested this with one spoonful). Yes, sure: you could make this with a regular storage onion and even with frozen peas. And maybe I will some time as a reminder of our lovely summer pasta.

A sweet, juicy onion and however many peas were in the house
Photograph by Edward Schneider.
Then, a small can of decent oil-packed tuna
Photograph by Edward Schneider.
Toasted pine nuts for softly crunchy texture
Photograph by Edward Schneider.
Pasta and plenty of fresh mint
Photograph by Edward Schneider.
The finished dish with a grinding of black pepper
Photograph by Edward Schneider.