Grabbing the Gusto

Deirdre Reid – Freelance Writer & Home Cook

In line with my “what if there’s a blizzard” mentality about keeping the cupboard stocked, I usually have the remains of a 12-pack of canned tuna in there. No, we don’t normally get blizzards in North Carolina but having grown up in Massachusetts, it’s hard to change that New England mindset. Tuna is always in the cupboard, available for tuna salad sandwiches or dishes like this pasta.

Or at least it has been. I’ve been researching sustainable canned tuna and the news isn’t good. There are two issues: bycatch and stock status. We don’t want to buy tuna that’s caught in purse seines or longlines. Those methods are likely to catch and kill juvenile tuna and other, possibly endangered, species. According to Seafood Watch, we should only buy tuna that’s caught with trolling or pole-and-line gear (fishing rod).

tuna catch canned

old purse seine - courtesy of NOAA/US Dept of Commerce

The source, fleet and species of tuna also make a difference. Some areas have healthier stocks than other. Most canned tuna in the U.S. is albacore (white tuna) or skipjack (light tuna). It’s best to buy canned white (albacore) tuna that is sourced from the U.S. or caught using trolling or line-and-pole. Unfortunately, more than 60% of canned albacore tuna is caught by international fleets using longlines and should be avoided.

80% of skipjack (light tuna) is caught using purse seines and should be avoided. Look for skipjack (light) tuna that is marked as troll or pole caught.

tuna catch canned troll trolling

trolling - photo courtesy of Avila Historical Society

From what I can tell, the shelves in the average supermarket are lined with canned tuna to avoid. I’d have to drive at least 30 minutes to a Whole Foods, and pay more, or maybe to Trader Joe’s to find ‘good’ tuna. And those 12-packs at BJ’s are definitely out. Can I really do this? The right thing? Canned wild salmon is looking better all the time.

This recipe, up to now, has always been one of my reliable pantry pastas. I usually make it when roasted red bell peppers are in the house too.

Roasted Red Bell Peppers

I stock up on red bell peppers when they’re on sale. Slice off the top and remove the stem, innards and seeds. Cut the circular top into two semi-circles and slice the body into four rectangular sections. Place the pieces on a foil-lined pan, skin side up, and place under the broiler or in the toaster oven. Broil them until the skin starts to blister and char. Remove the pieces while hot from the pan and place them in a storage or freezer bag. Seal the bag and let them steam for a while to loosen the skin. When they’re cool, peel off the skin.

Store the peppers in the fridge for a few days or freeze them. If you freeze them, put wrap or waxed paper in between portions so you can remove a few at a time.

pasta red bell pepper recipe tuna

photo by flickr: clairity

This recipe is very flexible. Use what you have in your pantry, refrigerator and freezer. I’m giving you the ingredients that I had on hand when I last made this.

Mediterranean Pasta with Tuna

  • Olive oil
  • 1 onion, sliced
  • 1 fennel bulb, cored and sliced
  • 2-3 cloves of garlic, chopped or sliced
  • 1/4 cup white wine
  • 1/2 cup roasted red bell pepper, sliced
  • 1/4 cup (or less) black olives, sliced
  • 1/2 tsp lemon zest, grated
  • 2 cans of tuna, drained
  • Crushed red pepper, to taste
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • Whole wheat fettuccine or whatever type you like
  • Reserved pasta water
  • Italian parsley
  • Options – zucchini, summer squash, cherry or grape tomatoes (chopped), sundried tomatoes (chopped), artichokes (canned or frozen, chopped), toasted seasoned breadcrumb/Parmesan mix

Put your water on to boil. Add the pasta once your onions and fennel are nearly softened. You can let the pan ingredients wait for your pasta, but you don’t want to make your pasta sit and wait for your sauce to be done.

Heat some olive oil in a large pan set to medium heat. Add the onions and fennel. Saute until they’re almost softened. If you are adding any other crunchy ingredients, like zucchini, that need to break down during the sauteing, add them now.

Just before the onion and fennel are done, turn the heat down to low, add the garlic and saute for one minute or until it just starts to golden. Add the white wine, turn up the heat a bit while you scrape the bottom of the pan and release any cooked yummy bits. The wine may cook away (evaporate), that’s okay, it leaves behind its flavor.

Turn down the heat to medium-low and add the roasted red bell pepper, olives, lemon zest, tuna, crushed red pepper, salt, pepper and any other ingredients. Break up the tuna with a fork and stir all the ingredients to combine.

When the pasta is ready, per box instructions, remove a few ladles of pasta water to reserve in a small bowl. Drain the pasta and add it to your pan with the sauce. Give it all a good mix and let it continue to cook on low heat for 1-2 minutes so the flavors meld. Add pasta water if it gets too dry.

When it’s ready, stir in the parsley. You could also top each serving with a mixture of toasted seasoned breadcrumbs and Parmesan cheese.

Serve with a green salad and a glass of white or red wine.

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