Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Tuna Pasta Salad

Tuna Pasta Salad on plate with grape tomatoes

Simple Summer Comfort Food

It’s been hot, hot, hot throughout much of the United States lately, with no letup from the heat immediately in sight. So most of us don’t want to spend more time than necessary over the stove. And somehow the thought of a big, heavy meal sounds unattractive at best, revolting at worst.

No, in these dog days of summer many of us want to eat lighter, but still crave flavor. A cold dish is ideal.

What better than a nutritious and relatively light pasta salad? Maybe the tuna pasta salad so many of us remember from childhood. A simple dish, but – like mac ‘n cheese – one that still delights us today.


Tuna Pasta Salad on plate with grape tomatoes, overhead view

Recipe: Tuna Pasta Salad

This dish is strikingly similar to American Potato Salad. Substitute pasta for potatoes, add tuna, and the rest of the recipe is almost identical. But this dish is even easier to make.

This recipe is adapted from my mother’s, and serves 4 – 6 as a main course (or twice that number as a side dish). You can easily scale it up or down to suit your needs. Leftover keep well in an airtight container for a few days.

Ingredients
  • 1 pound dried pasta in an interesting shape (I like shells, but macaroni, penne, farfalle, or other shapes work too)
  • ~ 1 cup onion cut into ¼ to ½-inch dices (red or yellow, depending on how sharp you like your onion)
  • 1 red bell pepper cleaned and cut into ¼ to ½-inch dices (optional; see notes)
  • 1 green bell pepper cleaned and cut into ¼ to ½-inch dices (optional; see notes)
  • 2 ribs of celery cleaned and cut into ¼ to ½-inch dices
  • ~ ½ cup sweet pickle relish (optional; see notes)
  • 3 cans tuna drained and flaked (may increase to 4 or more cans to suit your taste)
  • ¾ to 1 cup mayonnaise
  • salt
  • pepper (to taste, but you want quite a bit; see notes)
  • ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional; I like the “ping” it adds)
  • 3 tablespoons minced fresh herb of choice (optional; dill is terrific; parsley is nice too)

ingredients for Tuna Pasta Salad in bowl:  diced onions, celery, bell peppers, pickle relish, mayonnaise
Ingredients for Tuna Pasta Salad
Procedure
  1. Fill large pot (at least 4-quart, 6 is better) almost to the rim with water, put on stove, cover, and turn heat on high. When water is boiling, add salt (at least 1 tablespoon), and then add pasta. When water returns to boil, turn heat down so water is at a nice simmer. Set timer for 6 minutes. At 6 minutes, start tasting pasta to see if it’s done – you want pasta to be firm with a little resistance to the tooth (al dente), but still cooked. It’s likely you’ll need to cook your pasta another minute or two. When it’s done, dump pasta into a colander and, using the vegetable sprayer from your sink, douse it with cold water until the pasta is cool. Allow the pasta to drain.
  2. Meanwhile, clean and dice your onion, bell peppers, and celery.
  3. Open tuna, flake, and drain (I use a mesh strainer for this, suspending it by the tip and handle in my sink).
  4. Add cooked, cooled pasta to a large bowl (wide is better than deep) and add onion, bell peppers, celery, pickle relish, tuna, mayonnaise, salt, pepper, cayenne pepper, and herb of choice. Mix well, and taste to correct seasoning.
  5. Either cover the mixing bowl with plastic wrap or transfer Tuna Pasta Salad to an airtight container (my preference) and place in the refrigerator to chill for at least an hour before serving.
  6. Serve as is or with additional vegetables (tomatoes and cucumbers go particularly well, in my opinion).

Tuna in Strainer draining in sink
Tuna Draining
Notes
  • One of the glories of Tuna Pasta Salad is that you can mix and match ingredients, depending on what you have on hand. I rarely make this recipe exactly the same way two times running. I often increase or decrease quantities depending on my mood and the quality of the produce available in the market on the day I decide to make this dish.
  • If you don’t like bell peppers or sweet pickle relish, omit them (although the peppers add great color as well as flavor).
  • Cooked green peas are a great addition to this dish. You can add frozen peas to the pasta cooking water a minute or two before the pasta is finished, and just cook them with the pasta. Drain the pasta and peas together, and cool both with water from your vegetable sprayer.
  • My favorite pasta shape for this recipe is large shells (not the giant ones, which are meant to be stuffed). The large shells are what my mother always used, so that’s what speaks to me. Farfalle (bow ties) are another great shape. But use whatever you have on hand (or whatever your mother used when she made this salad).
  • Homemade mayonnaise is awesome in this dish, but I rarely take the trouble to make it. Hellman’s works great and is easier. And if you prefer Miracle Whip, by all means use that (we discussed the Hellman’s vs. Miracle Whip controversy in the American Potato Salad post).
  • Although you can use an everyday brand of packed-in-water tuna for this recipe, a high quality tuna that’s packed in olive oil has much more flavor. Progresso makes a quality product (you can find it at some supermarkets, or buy it through Amazon. Better yet are some of the Italian brands found in specialty or gourmet food stores.
  • I find that this dish requires quite a bit of pepper — close to a tablespoon. But you might find that is too much.  I suggest you start with a teaspoon, taste, then add more if you like.  Fresh ground pepper tastes much better than pre-ground. I keep a coffee grinder just to grind spices, and use it to grind pepper when I need a sizeable quantity. 

Tuna Pasta Salad in ramekin

Sometimes Simple is Just Right

Tuna Pasta Salad is one of those dishes that we all know how to make, but sometimes forget about. A mistake, because it’s simple, tastes terrific, and is just right when the mercury heads towards 100 degrees. Whenever we have it, I always wonder why I don’t make it more often.

Mrs. Kitchen Riffs wonders too. “After all, simple is your specialty,” she reminds me.

I’m going to take that as a compliment.

You may also be interested in reading about:
Gazpacho
Pasta Puttanesca
American (Mayonnaise) Potato Salad
Spinach Salad with Hot Bacon Dressing
Pineapple, Coconut, and Carrot Salad

6 comments:

  1. I think I just found my favorite pasta salad. In a word - YUM! I made this for dinner tonight, and it was excellent. I used a pound of brown rice noodle shells, 1 tablespoon good quality dried dill, and Low Fat Hellmann's Mayo as modifications. Next time, I will omit the cayenne and reduce the black pepper to 1teaspoon. It was a bit too spicy for me as written. Other than that, I wouldn't change a thing. Thank you for such a fantastic summer salad recipe! I know I will be making this often.

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  2. Hi Kara, glad you enjoyed the recipe! And thanks for making it. Good point re the spiciness - I'll add a suggestion in the notes that people mind want to use a bit less pepper than I do, and then add more if they want more spiciness. Thanks for the comment.

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  3. Think I'm gonna try this tomorrow. Will let you know the outcome.

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  4. Hi Simply Tia, I think you'll enjoy it - but let me know! Thanks for taking time to comment.

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  5. Are you positive there is only one cup of mayonnaise?

    I recently used Hellmann's recipe for macaroni salad. It also calls for one cup of mayo, but only a half-pound of pasta and one can of tuna. I made it last night. When I combined all the ingredients together, it was very wet/creamy, actually dripping. However, this morning it was almost too dry. The tuna and pasta absorbed most of the dressing.

    So if only half the pasta and one-third the tuna made it on the dry side, I can't imagine how dry your recipe would be with all the extra ingredients. I'm just curious, because this recipe looks good and I want to try it. Well, I guess if it's dry, I can always add more Hellmann's.

    Thanks for sharing this recipe! I like the idea of adding red bell peppers, which I adore.

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    Replies
    1. Hi Anonymous, the cup of mayo works for me; the salad definitely isn't dripping wet, but it has plenty of moisture. With that said, it sound like you prefer more mayo on your salad, so by all means increase the amount. I often find recipes are basically good, but need adjusting to my personal preference. Thanks for the comment.

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