Sunday, March 20, 2011

Recipe: Rigatoni with Tuna Sauce

(Sorry, no photo of the dish on this one--we scarfed it all down before I could take a picture.  You'll just have to content yourself with seeing the much-used recipe card, complete with tomato stains.  It's the best testament I know to how often we've made this sauce.)

I still remember the first time I ate Rigatoni with Tuna.  My conducting teacher, Bob Porco, was on his own for a weekend (his wife and daughter were out of town).  He called me and asked, "Do you like tuna?"  "Um...yes..."  "Well, come on over.  I've made a new pasta dish."

Now the only way I knew to eat tuna was to mash it up and put some mayonnaise on it.  If you got really adventurous, you might chop up a hard boiled egg and throw it in, or maybe some pickle relish, or for a truly gourmet touch, a few olives.  If I ate it with noodles, it was always with elbows, and it still had mayonnaise on it.  I could hardly imagine how it would taste on pasta with tomatoes (in those days, I didn't know you could make a pasta sauce without tomatoes), and I was a bit apprehensive.  On the other hand, Bob was (and probably is) both a prodigious and a discriminating eater.  So I went on faith.  I needn't have worried.  The recipe called for a pound and a half of rigatoni, and I'm pretty sure Bob and I polished it off between us.  (We could do that in those days.)

Sue copied the recipe on the card pictured above, and we have made it ever since (it's probably going on 30 years by now).  It's Miriam's favorite pasta dish, and she asked us to make it before she left to go back to school last night.  By now you know I can't resist any request for a dish from Elizabeth or Miriam, so of course we had tuna pasta last night.  It was just as satisfying as the first time I had it, in Bob Porco's kitchen.

Here's what you do.

(Click on the title for a printer-friendly version of the recipe.  When the new window opens, hit control-p on your computer to print.)

olive oil
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
4 flat fillets of anchovies (don't worry:  it doesn't taste like anchovies)
1 5-oz. can Italian tuna in olive oil (It used to come in 7-oz. cans, but no more.  If you have trouble finding this, chunk light tuna--not white or solid--in oil would be a decent substitute.  But look carefully:  most places have it.  The most common brand is Cento.)
pinch of ground thyme
pinch of dried oregano
3 fresh basil leaves or 1/2 teaspoon dried basil
1 tablespoon chopped Italian (flat-leaf) parsley
freshly ground black pepper
1/2 of a 28-oz. can of chopped Italian tomatoes (get San Marzano if you can)
1 lb. rigatoni
1-2 tablespoons softened butter
grated parmesan cheese

1.  Coat the bottom of a small saucepan with olive oil--2 or 3 tablespoons.  Add the chopped garlic and then turn on the heat to medium.  This is Sue's excellent trick to keep from overcooking the garlic, which turns it bitter.  Don't let the garlic brown.

2.  As soon as the oil is hot, add the anchovies.  Stir them with a fork until they break up completely.

3.  Add the herbs, the pepper, and the tuna with its oil.  Break the tuna up with a fork.  Cook about 5 minutes, then add the tomatoes and their juice.  If the sauce is too thick, add a little water.  When it starts to bubble, turn the heat to low and simmer for 25 minutes.  At the end, taste and correct for salt:  most likely, you won't need to add any, because the anchovies and the tuna are pretty salty.

4.  While the sauce is cooking, heat the water for the pasta, and cook the noodles according to the package directions.  Be careful not to overcook it!

5.  When the pasta is done, drain it in a colander.  Don't rinse it!  Put the butter into the pasta pot--the residual heat will melt it (set it over the burner if you need a little extra heat).  Put the pasta back in the pot and stir it to coat it thoroughly with the butter.  (This isn't just a gratuitous addition of butter:  the butter combines with the starch on the surface of the pasta to thicken the sauce and help it to cling to the noodles.)  Add the sauce and stir thoroughly.  Serve immediately with plenty of grated parmesan and freshly ground pepper.

There was a time in our house--before diabetes made it impossible for me make a meal on a plate of pasta alone--when Sue or I would say, "What should we have for dinner?" and Elizabeth's inevitable answer was, "Yeah, what sauce should we have on the pasta?" because basically we ate pasta almost every night.  It's fast, it's easy, and it's delicious.  Really, you don't have to pour sauce from a bottle.  In half an hour, you could be eating this, and believe me, it will become your instant comfort food.

Bob Porco taught me many things that I still remember.  Most of them were about music, but this sauce was probably his best contribution to our repertory.  Thanks, Bob.


  1. I remember this recipe card! We still eat pasta with tuna regularly, though from Hazan (which you also introduced us to!) which is pretty much the same, I think. Thanks for sharing - then and now!

  2. Ohh! THe cards. Can't tell you how much of my joy of cooking comes from using the familiar old cards, written by my hand or my Mom's, sister's or assorted friend's hand and decorated with well-aged stains!!

    Could never bear to re-write them as every time I see those cards the memories of great times with loved ones and good food flood back and the most important ingredient of every dish is insured.

    Will try the recipe too - sounds interesting for sure.

  3. This sparks so many memories of pasta with family and friends, but one does stand out as an accompaniment to this post: storing huge amounts of dry pasta under our couch in that tiny apartment in Bloomington. We usually bought the pasta on an Italian grocery shopping trip with Bob Porco. As I recall, our storage of the pasta was always a source of amusement for Bob Porco.

  4. Oh, that kitchen! While we worked some wonders in there, it was really a nightmare. It was tiny: it was too small for the fridge, so that was in the living room. We had to store pasta under the sofa, because there wasn't room for it in the kitchen. And let's not even discuss the cockroaches...