Go fish

Three satisfying dinners prove that canned tuna isn’t just for sandwiches.

Tuna fish dinner (Globe photo / Jim Scherer)
By Adam Ried
September 26, 2010

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If the only thing you ever do with canned tuna is mix it with mayo and slap it on a slice of bread, you’re selling this pantry staple short. I’m mad for all of the nutrient-rich fishes sold in cans and jars – sardines, anchovies, herring, and especially tuna, which offers lots of quick dinner possibilities. For instance, you can add it to pasta sauces, and the easy version here, with plenty of garlic, parsley, and lemon, has served as my “there’s-nothing-in-the-house-and-I’m-starving-and-exhausted-and-not-going-shopping” dinner for as long as I can remember. Recently, though, I have discovered two equally simple options – an easy, tangy Mexican-style escabeche and a fresh, satisfying bulgur salad, which is essentially tabbouleh with tuna, celery, and olives added. Water- or oil-packed tuna will work in each of these recipes, but the oil-packed will have a silkier, more tender texture.

Bulgur Salad with Tuna and Olives

Serves 6

If local tomatoes are out of season when you make this dish, substitute about 1½ cups of quartered grape tomatoes, which taste good throughout the year. 1 cup fine- or medium-grain bulgur, rinsed and drained

1/3 cup fresh lemon juice (from 2 lemons), or more to taste

1 clove garlic, minced

1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Salt and pepper

1 large, ripe tomato (about 12 ounces), cored, seeded, and diced medium

2 cans (5 or 6 ounces each) oil-packed tuna, drained and flaked

¾ cup Kalamata olives, pitted and quartered

1 rib celery, finely chopped

6 scallions, thinly sliced

¾ cup chopped fresh mint

¾ cup chopped fresh parsley

In a medium bowl, soak bulgur in water to cover by about 2 inches to soften, 15 to 30 minutes. In a mesh strainer, drain and rinse the soaked bulgur under running water, then press with the back of a wooden spoon to express as much moisture as possible. In a medium bowl, mix bulgur and 3 tablespoons lemon juice and set aside to soak, about 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a medium bowl vigorously whisk remaining lemon juice, garlic, oil, 1¼ teaspoons salt, and pepper to taste to blend.

Add the tomato, tuna, olives, celery, scallions, mint, parsley, and dressing to the bulgur, toss to combine, cover with plastic wrap, and set aside until flavors blend, about 30 minutes. Taste the salad and adjust seasoning with salt, pepper, and lemon juice, if necessary, then toss and serve.

Spicy Tuna Escabeche Tostadas

Serves 4

Adapted from the new book by Mexican food authority Rick Bayless, Fiesta at Rick’s, this escabeche would also make a great filling for hard taco shells or warmed soft corn tortillas.

3 tablespoons olive oil

2 medium onions, quartered lengthwise and thinly sliced (about 4 cups)


2 medium carrots, thinly sliced

1 clove garlic, minced

¼ cup roughly chopped pickled jalapeno peppers (about 3)

2 tablespoons cider vinegar, or more to taste

2 tablespoons fresh lime juice, or more to taste, plus lime wedges for serving

2 cans (5 or 6 ounces each) oil-packed tuna, drained and flaked

1/3 cup chopped fresh cilantro or parsley

8 tostadas

Chopped tomatoes, for serving, optional

Sliced avocado, for serving, optional

In a large skillet over medium-high heat, heat the oil until it ripples. Add the onions and 1 teaspoon salt, stir to coat, and cook until the onions begin to sizzle, about 30 seconds. Adjust the heat to medium and cook, stirring often, until the onions are translucent, about 15 minutes. Add the carrots and continue cooking, stirring often, until onions are very soft and golden and carrots are tender, 10 to 15 minutes longer. Add the garlic and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 1 minute. Off heat, cool to room temperature. Add the jalapenos, vinegar, lime juice, tuna, and most of the cilantro or parsley, and stir to combine. Taste the mixture and adjust the seasoning with additional salt, vinegar, or lime juice, if necessary. Top each tostada with about 1/3 cup of the tuna mixture, tomatoes and avocados, if using, sprinkle with the remaining cilantro or parsley, and serve with lime wedges.

Pasta with Tuna, Garlic, and Lemon

Serves 4In this recipe, using water-packed tuna lets the flavor of your extra-virgin olive oil sing.

½ cup extra-virgin olive oil

8 cloves garlic, minced (about 2½ tablespoons)

¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

2 cans (5 or 6 ounces each) water-packed tuna (not drained)

2 teaspoons finely grated zest and ¼ cup juice from 1 or 2 lemons

Salt and black pepper

1 pound short and stubby or tubular-shaped pasta

½ cup chopped fresh parsley

In a large shallow saucepan over medium-low heat, heat 1/3 cup of the oil, 2 tablespoons of the garlic, and the red pepper flakes, stirring occasionally, until fragrant and the garlic turns light gold, about 5 minutes. Add the tuna with its liquid, use a spoon to break up the large chunks, stir to mix, and cook to warm though, stirring occasionally, about 3 minutes. Add the remaining garlic, the lemon zest, and 1 teaspoon salt, stir to mix, and cook for about 1 minute.

Meanwhile, bring 4 quarts of water to a boil in a large pot over high heat. Add 1 tablespoon salt and the pasta, and cook according to package directions until al dente. Reserve ¼ cup of the pasta cooking water and set aside, and drain the pasta.

Add the pasta to the tuna mixture, toss, and cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, for 1 minute. Add the lemon juice, remaining oil, and black pepper to taste, and toss well. If necessary, add enough cooking water to distribute the sauce evenly. Add most of the parsley and toss to distribute. Taste the pasta and adjust the seasoning with salt and black pepper, if necessary, sprinkle with the remaining parsley, and serve at once.

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  • Sept. 26 Globe Magazine: Your Home


Like the familiar corn chip, only larger, Mexican tostadas are simply corn tortillas that have been toasted in the oven or deep-fried in oil. This both enhances the corn flavor and makes the tostadas sturdy enough to support toppings such as refried beans or, here, tuna escabeche. The name “tostada” commonly refers to both the crisp tortilla itself and the dish made with it. Tostadas are available in many local supermarkets.