I found it.
After my first attempt at tuna casserole, I finally found a worthy alternative. I was at the Community Book Store in Park Slope and there on the cookbook shelf was Andrew Carmellini’s Urban Italian, a pretty dazzling book of recipes from the former chef of A Voce. I took the book to the grimy couch and sat down next to a cat, a dog and an iguana (this store has pets) and began flipping through it and there it was: “Ziti with Tuna, Red Onions and Cannelini Beans.” Was it a casserole proper? Absolutely not. But it had many of the components of a tuna casserole–noodles, tuna, onions–and assembled them in a way that made much more sense to me. I quickly took out a pen and my secret little pad and copied down the recipe, hoping the iguana wouldn’t rat me out to the store owners. On my walk home I picked up the ingredients and cracked my knuckles, ready for Italy to conquer America in the battle of noodles and tuna.
Here’s what you need:
Olive oil, 1 lb penne or ziti, 1 red onion sliced thin, red pepper flakes, 1/4 cup white wine (I used Vermouth which I keep in the fridge), 1 15-oz can cannellini beans, 1 cup halved cherry tomatoes, 1 1/2 cups tuna in oil (Sicilian or Spanish), 1/2 cup Kalamata olives (I forgot to buy these), the juice and zest of 3 lemons, 2 Tbs chopped parsley, 1/4 cup chopped basil (I left this out), 2 Tbs capers, and 1 tsp of oregano.
As you can tell by the ingredients, this is miles away from Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup.
And it’s pretty easy to prepare–it’s actually a one-pot meal. Here’s what you do:
1. Get lots of water boiling in a big pot, add salt, and then boil your penne until just al dente (definitely undercook it here, don’t overcook. You know by tasting.) Drain it but don’t rinse it. Add a splash of olive oil and mix the pasta around a bit with your hands so it doesn’t stick. Set it aside.
2. Now that same pot you cooked the pasta in? Dry it out. Put it back on the heat and when it’s hot add 2 Tbs. olive oil and the red onion, sliced thin. Cook ’til soft.
3. Add salt, red pepper flakes (to taste–I use about 1/2 tsp), and 1/4 cup white wine. Reduce 2 minutes until onions are shiny.
4. Add 1 15-oz can cannellini beans (I drained them a bit), cook 1 to 2 minutes (add some salt here too). Then add the pasta, stir around until the pasta is warmed up and then remove from the heat.
5. Here’s where you add the good stuff—and you add it off the heat so it’s more of a pasta salad than a casserole proper. You add the cherry tomatoes, the tuna, the olives (if you use them), the juice and zest of 3 lemons (this makes it zingy), the 2 Tbs chopped parsley, 1/4 cup chopped basil, the 2 Tbs capers and the 1 tsp oregano. Here it is all in a bowl:
How could adding this to ANYTHING make it taste bad?
You also add more salt here, a splash of olive oil (1/4 cup) and, if you want, toasted bread crumbs.
So stir it all together–the pasta and the stuff–and that, my friends, yields the best tuna + noodle dish of your life. You don’t need to bake it in the oven, getting the tuna all hot and mealy. You don’t need to sprinkle potato chips on top–that’s what the bread crumbs are for, if you use them.
But it tastes fresh, it tastes bright, and it actually tastes like it’s good for you (unless you’re Jeremy Piven.) Wouldn’t you want a bowl of this instead of that classic American gunk?
America may have given us jazz, Steven Speilberg and Disneyland, but when it comes to tuna and noodles, Italy knows what it’s doing. American Tuna Noodle Casserole? You’ve been conquered.