Serve this Fast and Easy Italian Classic as a Main Dish or a Side
We have some warm days ahead of us before autumn rolls in, so we’re still in the mood for lighter fare. Nothing tastes better — or is quicker to prepare — than a refreshing bean salad.
Pairing white (cannellini) beans with tuna is a classic of Italian home cooking. In the United States, the closest corollary would probably be tuna salad made with mayonnaise.
White bean and tuna salad makes a pleasing main course when you want something light for dinner or lunch. It also works as a hefty side dish.
Best of all, it requires only pantry staples. In fact, you probably have the ingredients on hand already. So you could make it — and be eating it — in under ten minutes.
Recipe: White Bean and Tuna Salad
Open almost any comprehensive Italian cookbook and you’ll find a recipe for this dish. But you really don’t need a recipe: It’s just cooked white beans and canned tuna mixed with basic salad dressing (olive oil, wine vinegar, an aromatic like onion, and seasoning). You can easily alter quantities and ingredients to suit your taste.
The best discussion of this salad that I’ve seen in a cookbook is in Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. My recipe is similar to hers — though her recipe wasn’t the inspiration for mine (I first saw this dish in a now-forgotten magazine article years ago).
This recipe serves 2 as a light main course or 4 as a side dish. You can easily scale it up to feed more people. Leftovers will keep for a few days in an airtight container in the refrigerator.
- 1 15-ounce can white beans, rinsed and drained (cannellini are ideal; otherwise, use any white bean like great northern)
- 1 can tuna, preferably oil-packed (cans of tuna are a miserly 5 ounces these days, so use two cans if you want a salad that is tuna-heavy)
- ~½ cup diced or finely sliced onion, or more if you like (yellow, white, or red onions all work; see notes)
- ~¼ cup finely minced parsley (or to taste)
- 1 - 2 tablespoons finely minced fresh herb of choice (optional; fresh basil goes particularly well in this salad)
- extra virgin olive oil to taste
- red wine vinegar to taste
- salt to taste
- freshly ground pepper to taste
- Open the can of white beans, rinse, and drain. Place in a medium mixing bowl.
- Open tuna. If oil-packed, just dump it into the bowl with the beans. If water-packed, drain first.
- Peel the onion and cut into ¼-inch dice, or slice thinly. If you find the flavor of onions too strong, use a mild red or Vidalia onion (also see notes for taming the “bite” of onions). Add to bowl.
- Wash, dry, and mince parsley. Add to bowl.
- Repeat with the fresh herb, if you are using one.
- Mix well, taking care to flake the tuna and distribute it evenly throughout the mixture.
- Add extra virgin olive oil to taste (usually about ¼ cup for me). Mix well.
- Add red (or white) wine vinegar to taste (about 1 tablespoon usually works). Mix well.
- Season with salt and freshly ground pepper to taste. Mix well.
- Serve immediately, or refrigerate in an airtight container and serve later.
- Any good-quality canned white beans will work in this recipe. Cannellini are traditional, but others work well too. If you have cooked dried beans on hand, you can substitute those.
- I often double this recipe. When I do, I usually increase the tuna to 3 cans (I like tuna).
- Oil-packed tuna has the best flavor and it’s what I recommend. Just add the oil from the can to your salad — no need to drain since you’ll be adding more olive oil anyway.
- You can substitute canned salmon for tuna.
- In my experience, any onion works well in this salad. Some people object to onions that have an assertive flavor, however. You can reduce the “bite” by soaking your diced or sliced onions in cold water for 30 minutes, then draining them before using.
- Marcella Hazan takes this a step further. After the onion has been soaking for a few minutes, she suggests squeezing it in your hand for a couple of seconds, releasing, then squeezing again (repeating another 5 or 6 times). Then change the water and repeat the squeezing. Change the water again, then let the onions soak for up to 30 minutes total. The repeated squeezing and soaking helps eliminate much of the acid in the onion, which is what causes the “bite.” I haven’t tried this technique, but I’d trust Hazan on this if you find onions problematic in a salad.
- For an interesting variation on this basic recipe, try adding some extra ingredients. Pitted olives (preferably black), diced red pepper, and diced tomato are all tasty additions. How much to use? I suggest ½ to 1 cup, but adjust to suit your taste.
- Tomatoes are in season right now and their flavor complements this dish well. If you don’t want to add them directly to the salad (I usually don’t), serve them with along it. A side of tomatoes turns this dish into a complete meal.
Those Shrinking Food Packages
I remember as a child hearing adults complain that products just weren’t “like they used to be.”
“What old fogeys,” I always thought smugly. “They can’t handle change.”
Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of food packages get smaller. Recipes in older cookbooks often call for 32-ounce cans of tomatoes and 16-ounce cans of beans. I’ve watched those tomatoes shrink to 28 ounces and beans to 15 or 14 ounces (sometimes less). Candy bars have shriveled to half their former size. Five-pound sacks of sugar have mysteriously dwindled to 4. I’ve always adapted.
But the incredible shrinking tuna cans really annoy me! For years, the standard size for canned tuna was 7 ounces. Then 6 (or so) ounces, and now suddenly it’s 5 ounces.
Food companies don’t seem to care that they’re messing up their customers’ recipes. And of course they’re charging more for less.
Worst of all, they’ve finally turned me into an old fogey.
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