In my mother’s footsteps: Pasta with Tuna and Tomatoes
Mom, circa 1940
The fridge is stocked; the pasta machine is at the ready; and the baccala is soaking. The company has started to arrive and it won’t be long before the house is buzzing with voices big and small. But tonight in the quiet before the chaos, I have a night to myself – to cook, to wrap, to reminisce. My mom is always on my mind this time of year. She always worked tirelessly at Christmas, making homemade pasta or gnocchi for the neighborhood, sending tray after tray out the door with my dad for delivery. My brother and I would stand on a chair and help roll out the gnocchi or carry the pasta sheets draped all over the kitchen to her spot at the pasta machine. We would finally get the hang of rolling the gnocchi into just the right shape or picking which pasta sheet was just dry enough to cut into the fresh strands of homemade ‘macaroni’.
I lost my mother to Alzheimers in 2007 and now as an adult, I often wish she could be with me in my kitchen, guiding my hand to shape the gnocchi as she did for me when we were young. I do feel her presence as I buzz about the kitchen, making sure that the consistency for the pasta dough is just right or that I roll the pasta sheets just thin enough. (Although I do have to ask, where was she the year my gnocchi fell apart in the water and I was forced to serve lumps of gnocchi glue to the entire family?? )
With the kitchen covered in flour, I needed something easy and quick for an early dinner. And I knew just what I was going to make – my mother’s pasta with tuna fish, which became one of my favorites. This is true comfort food for me. She always had a bowl of this waiting for me when I would return home from college. This pasta has seen me through many a rough patch – breakups with boyfriends, a tough exam, and then there was the time I showed up at home with my new boyfriend only to have a dozen red roses delivered from the other boyfriend. (Oops! Ate LOTS of pasta that night!)
I make this pasta with Italian tuna fish, which is canned in olive oil rather than water. The flavor is richer. But short of that, the ingredients are straight out of the pantry. This pasta is ready in minutes and can be used as a backdrop to add in many other ingredients – olives, spinach, pancetta, capers, whatever you have on hand. (And I sometimes put grated parmigiano on this dish but please don’t tell! You aren’t supposed to serve cheese with fish in Italy as it overpowers the delicate taste of the fish.)
Well, back to cooking! Miss you, Mom.
Pasta with Tuna and Tomatoes
- 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 4 cloves of garlic, sliced thin
- 2 fillets of anchovies or 1 teaspoon anchovy paste
- 2 (5 ounce) cans tuna, packed in olive oil, drained
- Pinch (or more) red pepper flakes
- 1 (28 ounce) can diced tomatoes
- Salt and freshly ground pepper
- ½ to 3/4 pound pasta (I don’t like my pasta drowning in sauce so I used 3/4 of a pound; use 1/2 pound if you want a saucier pasta)
- Chopped parsley
- Grated parmigiano (shhhh, don’t tell!)
- Put a large pot filled with salted water to boil over medium heat.
- Meanwhile, in a large skillet or sauté pan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add in the sliced garlic and sauté for a minute being careful not to let the garlic burn. Add in the anchovies or anchovy paste and stir to incorporate.
- Add the tuna and the red pepper flakes. Stir to incorporate, breaking up any large chucks of tuna with the back of a wooden spoon. Add in the diced tomatoes. Allow to simmer for about 15 minutes until a bit thickened. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper.
- When the water boils, add the pasta and cook according to package directions until ‘al dente’. Drain pasta.
- Add pasta to sauce and toss. Sprinkle with the chopped parsley and maybe a bit of grated parmigiano.
- Serve…Buon appetito!