The classic Italian Pasta Aglio e Olio has joined up with some feisty friends (tuna and olives) to create a party in a pan. These ingredients from your pantry add another level of punchiness to this savoury pasta dish and turn it into a satisfying comfort food meal with big bold flavours. (Skip to recipe.)
What do you get when you start monkeying around with a culinary classic? Sometimes you get into a whole lotta trouble, but other times? You luck upon something so deliciously memorable that you know it'll become a new staple in your kitchen. The Traditionalist Police might be slapping my fingers for this one, but we think it's a winner. I'm going to keep on committing this crime whenever I've got the craving for a bold and punchy pasta dish that wakes up all my taste buds and makes me smack my lips with pleasure. Having to cook a meal with pantry and fridge staples has never produced more amazing results.
Traditional Pasta Aglio e Olio (pasta with garlic and oil) is a timeless Italian classic. It's a simple peasant dish, made with just a few pantry ingredients, that has stood the test of time - something the Italians are so very good at. Good fruity olive oil, a handful of thinly sliced garlic cloves, a smattering of spicy pepper flakes, and a shower of fresh parsley is all that's needed to make this time-honoured pasta dish that is so much greater than the sum of its separate parts. The dish originated in either Naples or the Abruzzo region of Italy; nobody really knows, but everyone can agree that it is one of the most tasty pasta dishes around. I urge you to make the dish in its original form - you will be in pasta heaven.
And then . . . horrors . . . I encourage you to mess with that fantastic classic just a bit and add two more ingredients (also from your pantry) to produce a big bowl of this flavour-punched, bastardized version: Tuna and Green Olive Pasta Aglio e Olio. You will not regret it, my friends.
Here in North America we're used to thick, soupy, meaty sauces or heavy cream and cheese sauces on our pasta, but the Italians know all about light, bright sauces that make the pasta shine. This is one of those; it's loaded with umami meatiness and bright zing, yet still comforting and filling. It may not look like much, but the flavours are bright and intense.
Tuna is definitely an Italian ingredient - especially if you can get the good, solid tuna packed in oil - it's luscious. And as for the stuffed green olives . . . well, they're more of a Spanish ingredient, but the punchy little hits of briny saltiness they bring to the dish are the perfect foil for the rich, meaty tuna. I've always got a jar of them in my fridge. If you wanted to stay more true to the Italian palate, you could use Italian oil-cured olives, black or green, or chop up some marinated artichoke hearts (delicious) to provide the same type of culinary punch you get from stuffed green olives. Most often the Pasta Aglio e Olio is made with spaghetti, but I think the chunks of tuna and olive wouldn't stick to the spaghetti and would end up congregating like a bunch of recalcitrant teenagers in the bottom of the bowl. I've used a sturdier short pasta that is a match for the deliciously chunky bits.
Whatever you do, this mashup of a classic Italian pasta dish with a couple tuna and olive party crashers is real winner. It's done in the time it takes to cook your pasta; simple cuisine at its very best. If it makes you feel any better, you can be all hip and trendy and call it fusion food.
Quick and Easy Tuna Pasta Aglio e Olio
Set a big pot of water on to boil for the pasta. While that's doing its thing, thinly slice a handful of garlic cloves. Gently heat them in a generous amount of olive oil with some spicy red pepper flakes. This allows all the pungent flavours to burst free and tantalize you with their heavenly aromas.
Slice a few green olives and open a couple good quality cans of tuna. Then toss those in the pan, too.
When the pasta is done, add it to the pan with a good slurp of the cooking water and a scattering of fresh parsley.
Reheat it and toss it all together to coat the pasta and tuna with the oily goodness.
Serve up big bowls of the pasta drizzled with more beautiful fruity olive oil and crowned with a generous scattering of shaved or grated fresh Parmesan cheese.
Bring out a bottle of robust red wine and invite over a few friends. Mangia Bene!
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Kitchen Frau Notes: You can omit the tuna and green olives, and you'll have the classic Italian Pasta Aglio e Olio.
If you don't care for green olives, try it with black olives instead, or even with coarsely chopped marinated artichoke hearts (delicious). Either of those will give the little pops of salty tanginess to offset the richness of the tuna.
If cooking this for children, add only ¼ teaspoon of crushed red pepper flakes and put the spice jar on the table for the grown-ups to sprinkle more over their pasta as desired.
If you don't have fresh parsley, use 1 to 2 tablespoons dried parsley.
Solid tuna or chunk tuna works best for this dish (preferably oil-packed) so it stays in chunks. Flaked tuna is quite a bit mushier, but if that's all you have - the flavour is still there.
I don't like to salt my pasta water as heavily as many sources say (I apologize to all the Italians out there). I prefer to just lightly salt the water and add salt to the dish to taste so I can control the salt level more (plus I'm not throwing out all that salt with the water).
- 1 lb (454gms) uncooked pasta (like penne, rigatoni, rotini, etc.), gluten free if necessary
- 8 large garlic cloves, thinly sliced (about ¼ cup sliced)
- ⅓ cup (80ml) good quality olive oil, plus more for serving
- ½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
- ½ teaspoon fine sea salt
- ½ cup coarsely chopped stuffed green olives (or black olives)
- 2 cans solid (or chunk) tuna (160 -198 grams each)
- ¼ cup chopped parsley
- grated or shaved Parmesan cheese, for serving
Set a large pot of lightly salted water on to boil for the pasta (I use 1 teaspoon salt in 3 quarts/3 litres of water). When it boils, add the pasta and cook it for 1 minute less than the package says for al dente (still slightly firm) pasta.
While the water is heating and pasta is cooking, heat ⅓ cup (80ml) of the olive oil in a large (12-inch/30cm) skillet or a dutch oven over medium heat. Add the garlic slices, red pepper flakes, and salt and cook gently just until the first piece of garlic starts to slightly colour. You don't want the garlic to get brown at all. Immediately add the chopped olives and the tuna (leave it in large chunks as it will break up as you stir in the pasta). Turn off the heat and leave your skilletful of goodness to wait for the pasta to catch up.
Scoop out 2 cups of the pasta water before draining it and set it aside (this is important to the sauce, so don't dump out the pasta without remembering to do this). Drain the pasta.
Add the drained pasta and 1½ cups (360ml) of the reserved pasta water to the skillet. (Reserve the remaining ½ cup of pasta water in case you need more liquid in the pasta later). Sprinkle the pasta with the parsley and gently toss everything to combine it, trying to keep the tuna in bite-sized chunks). Cook for about 1 more minute over medium heat, until you hear the liquid bubbling and everything is heated through. You want there to be a thin layer of liquid in the bottom of the pan. If the pasta gets dry, add the remaining ½ cup of pasta water.
Serve with extra olive oil to drizzle over it, generous shavings or gratings of fresh Parmesan cheese, and more crushed red pepper flakes at the table if anyone wants to up the spice level.
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