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Wednesday, November 29, 2023
Nov. 29, 2023

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Time for a Tuna-up: Chilled pasta salad is catalyst for invention — what could be easier for dinner?

By , Columbian staff writer
4 Photos
This chilled tuna pasta salad is just right for a summer lunch or dinner.
This chilled tuna pasta salad is just right for a summer lunch or dinner. (Monika Spykerman/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

When I don’t know what to make for dinner, I turn to tuna. My fishy little friend in the can always knows just what to do. If it’s cold outside, it becomes a warming casserole. If it’s too hot outside to turn the oven on, it becomes a tasty sandwich. It’s never out of style, it’s always affordable and one can makes a meal. Thank you, tuna!

This deep into August, I favor salads for dinner. They’re cooling and easy (unless you find chopping vegetables tedious, which is fair enough). They involve dirtying a bare minimum of dishes so you can spend less time at the sink and more time soaking up that gorgeous summer evening light. There are no pans to scrub and no casserole dishes to scour. There’s just you, tuna, a few simple salad fixings and one big bowl. What could be easier? Not making dinner at all? Well, yes, that’s also a viable option. You do you.

Sometimes I want a heartier, more substantial tuna salad, and that’s why God gave us pasta. There’s something really quite delightful about a chilled pasta salad. It has the same stick-to-your-ribs power as a hot pasta dish yet it feels lighter, breezier, a bit devil-may-care. You feel like you’re breaking an unspoken rule: Pasta is often eaten warm, but here you are, throwing caution to the wind and eating it at 40 degrees like a true maverick.

My mom’s tuna pasta salads always followed the same formula: tuna, macaroni, celery, sweet pickle relish, hard-boiled eggs and mayonnaise. My own tuna pasta salads, however, are far more spontaneous and rely on whatever happens to be in my fridge and pantry. I think the only real requirements of a chilled tuna pasta salad are that it’s cold and contains tuna and pasta. Everything else is up to your imagination: fresh or preserved vegetables, cheese, hard-boiled eggs, fresh or dried herbs. Any bite-size pasta is right: penne, rigatoni, rotini, farfalle, orecchiette, shells, cavatappi, macaroni, fusilli. (Don’t you love those Italian names?) Dressing can be tangy or creamy. Tuna can be canned in water or oil or if you want to go all gourmet you could use a grilled or broiled tuna filet.

I mention all that just to illustrate that the recipe I’m sharing should serve less as an iron-clad directive and more as a template for your own creativity. Make your own tuna pasta salad any way you like, you rebel.

For this particular pasta salad, I boiled 2½ cups of uncooked penne rigate (that is, penne with tiny ridges, good for soaking up flavors) in generously salted water. I dropped a couple of eggs (shells on) in the pot to boil with the pasta so that I’d have hard-boiled eggs by the time the pasta was done cooking. I’m sure homemakers have been doing this for generations but it just makes me feel like such a genius and I’ll take my self-affirmation where I can get it.

After about 10 minutes at a full boil, I removed the eggs, drained the penne and added about a tablespoon of butter and a couple dashes of salt, then let the pasta sit for a few minutes. As the pasta cools, it soaks up a smidgen of buttery flavor that makes noodles even tastier. (I learned this trick from my father and now I do it every time I make pasta. I didn’t think it would make a discernible difference in flavor but it does.) I poured the buttered pasta into a large bowl along with one mostly drained can of salted tuna.

Next, the veggies. I chopped up fresh zucchini and tomatoes from my garden. From the fridge, I added ¼ cup of chopped onion — enough to add a little heat but not overpower anything or give my family a severe case of onion breath. From the pantry, I added a drained 4-ounce jar of pimientos. I rummaged through the cheese bin and found a little bit of feta and two sticks of string cheese, so I crumbled the feta into the bowl and cut up the string cheese into little chunks. I went back to the garden and gathered fresh basil and oregano. I added ¼ teaspoon of lemon pepper and paprika and ½ teaspoon of the Middle Eastern spice blend za’atar, just to mix things up a bit. Last, I added both boiled eggs, chopped.

I decided on a creamy dressing so that I could use up about 2 tablespoons of sour cream onion dip left over from a recent party (although you could probably use any creamy condiment you like). I sampled the salad but determined that it needed a zingy note, so I added a tablespoon of balsamic vinegar.

You may think that’s a weird dressing, but the proof is in the pasta: My daughter said it was the best tuna pasta salad I’d ever made. I was so flattered. My variations on Mom’s classic dish may not please everyone, but just remember: It’s a big tunaverse out there and your next creation could become your family’s new favorite.

Tuna Pasta Salad

2½ cups of dry pasta

One 5-ounce can of tuna

2 eggs

1 medium zucchini, seeded and diced

2 medium tomatoes, diced

One 4-ounce jar of pimientos

¼ cup diced onion

1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil

2 teaspoons chopped fresh oregano

¼ teaspoon each lemon pepper, paprika and za’atar

2 tablespoons of sour cream onion dip or other creamy condiment

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

Salt to taste

Prepare pasta according to package directions and toss with the remaining ingredients.

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