On Standby


I went to the grocery store Tuesday night and came back loaded down (quite literally) with good things to eat, with visions of wonderful meals dancing in my mind’s eye: lamb keftedes, wild sockeye salmon fillets in red pepper sauce with fresh snow peas, pork tenderloins cooked wild-boar style with shiitakes, asparagus-goat cheese pizza with caramelized onions. Plopped down on the sofa with a glass of iced tea, and asked Jeremy if anything in particular sounded good for dinner. “Something cold,” was the answer. “How about tuna pasta salad?”

As soon as the weather warms up, this is what I get. I’ve been making this very basic pasta salad for Jeremy since we first got married—or maybe even before—long before I had any cooking skills to speak of. He still requests it all the time, though, so out of respect for that staying power, I’ll post a how-to for this summer stand-by.

Dilled Tuna Pasta Salad

This isn’t a recipe, because I don’t use one or even measure. Make it to your own preferences, tasting frequently along the way to make sure you’re on the right track.

Pasta: I always make this salad with farfalle. I think there may have once been an actual recipe, and if so, it called for farfalle. They are certainly suited to this type of salad, but you could always make it with rotini or wagon wheels or really anything you have on hand. Probably ribbon noodles wouldn’t work as well as shapes. Orecchiette would be good for nestling peas and chunks of tuna, but then, it’s just the best. 🙂 Jeremy always wants lots of salad for leftovers, so I have started making a whole box of pasta at once (should be about a pound); just do it according to the package directions… I think my farfalle called for 11 minutes of cook time. Drain it and give it a little while to cool, then dump it in a big bowl.

Tuna: Don’t use your expensive oil-packed Italian-imported tuna for this. It’s an extremely American salad, so I used good old water-packed albacore, as high quality as possible. Dump your tuna onto the pasta and break it up into bite-sized chunks. For a full box of pasta, I use 2 6-oz cans of tuna.

Veggies: The primary veggie in this salad is peas. I use frozen ones, and I just run them under hot water in a colander long enough to thaw them out. I use a few handfuls; I have small hands, so it’s probably still less than a cup altogether. If you want more peas, chuck them in. I find that too many more just sink to the bottom instead of clinging to the farfalle, and your last bowl is mostly pea salad with garnishes of tuna and pasta. If I am not feeling too wilted with heat, I finely chop some sweet onion—about half an onion, I guess—and throw that in as well. This is all I add, but you could certainly throw in a variety of other chopped veggies, whatever you have in the crisper that sounds appealing.

Dressing: Yup, this is your basic mayo dressing. I always used to use light Miracle Whip, because that’s what I grew up with. Now we use SmartBalance mayo, which we like a lot. Actually everything we’ve tried from SmartBalance is great: margarine, peanut butter, microwave popcorn. I just dollop it on the pile of pasta, tuna and veggies, and stir it through, adding a bit more as needed, just to get everything lightly coated—not drowned in white goo. For a full box of pasta, I probably had to use at least a cup of mayo, maybe 1.5 cups.

Seasonings: You could stir this into your mayo beforehand if you have a pretty good idea how much you’ll need, but I just do it on the fly. The main seasoning is dill, which, for me, is the smell of summer. I use dried dill because I always have it around, but I would happily use fresh dill if I had some. Maybe I can still find a place to squeeze a dill plant in my herb garden… Anyway, for a salad this size, I think I ended up using at least a tablespoon of dried dill. Then a generous sprinkle of kosher salt and a grind or two of pepper. If I was lazy and didn’t feel like chopping onions, I might add some (foodies, avert your eyes) onion and/or garlic powder for zing. A splash of fresh lemon juice or some zest would likely be a nice addition, but it’s not part of my usual recipe, so I’ve never tried it.

And there you have it: a simple tuna pasta salad to appease your husband in hot weather. Jeremy doesn’t mind eating this at room temperature, just after I finish mixing it up. I need it to be cold or I won’t eat it at all. It keeps in the fridge for a few days of lunches, though it never lasts long at our house.

Update 8/5/08: I finally got over my mental block against using Italian tuna in my pasta salad, partly because we didn’t have anything else, and it was darned hot today. I made a slight adjustment to my usual mix also, using steamed green beans cut into 1″ segment in place of peas, and adding some Dijon to the dressing. I also went a bit light on the mayo and added some of the tuna oil as a lubricant. It was delicious, even at room temperature, at which I usually turn up my nose.

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