When we returned home after nearly three weeks in Japan, we had a difficult decision to make: What would be our first dinner? Grilled tofu with miso? Turnips simmered in dashi and soy sauce? Perhaps something popping with umami from the bottle of ishiri (delicious squid sauce) we brought home from the Noto peninsula?
No way. (Although, I should note, all those things are on the agenda.) It was pasta, by which I do not mean udon or soba. And our dinner required no shopping, which in our befuddled state of 13-hour jet lag would have been a challenge: We could barely remember where we were, much less find our way to the grocery store.
A couple of months before, I’d spent a pleasant evening looking at YouTube cooking videos. One was an episode from an Italian restaurant series, this segment focusing on restaurant Vissani in Todi, Umbria. One of the dishes they demonstrated was a clever — but simple — variation on something most of us have probably eaten: pasta (in this case spaghetti) with canned tuna.
The cleverness lay in three areas. First, the tuna was premium fatty belly packed in olive oil (available here from Italy or Spain as ventresca). Secondly, the tuna was warmed through not in its own oil but in butter, lots of it. Finally, the butter had previously been flavored with garlic and dried chili pepper. It looked great in the video and required hardly any time or effort — perfect for a cook who was stumbling around the apartment, wondering whether it was day or night.
For two portions of spaghettini (8 ounces, or 200 grams, which is a better, smaller quantity that works well when you buy your pasta in kilogram packages), I put the salted water up to boil and peeled four large cloves of garlic, cutting each in half. I melted three or four tablespoons of butter in a skillet over medium-low heat, then added the garlic and let it infuse for 4 or 5 minutes. You want the butter to foam but not brown, so keep an eye on the heat; you might wish to incline the pan to create a butter bath for the garlic at one end.
I then added dried chili; use whatever kind you like and in whatever quantity you think will be right for you. You want to be aware of the piquancy, but not end up with a dish that’s actually hot. For reference, I used about a 1/2 teaspoon of fruity Aleppo pepper; if I’d used cayenne, for instance, I’d have used quite a bit less. I let the chili infuse for a few seconds, then removed the garlic cloves. I added a 4-ounce can of tuna belly, drained, and broke the fish up a little with a spoon, leaving it in fairly big pieces. (I could have used first-class regular tuna in olive oil, but belly has a particular moistness and appealing texture, thanks to the large pieces in which it remains when canned.)
As this warmed through, I boiled the pasta. At a certain point, I turned off the heat under the butter and tuna, then turned it on again when the pasta was almost done. I drained the spaghettini and added it to the skillet, where I tossed it with the butter and tuna. If I’d had any, I’d have followed Vissani’s lead and garnished the dish with a few leaves of basil. I set aside some of the pasta water to loosen the dish, if necessary. (It was, but only a tablespoon or two was needed.)
Because of the tuna (and because I happened to have used salted butter for a change), the pasta needed no salt, but you should taste before serving. The dish had everything we wanted: lots of flavor from the meaty tuna; great garlicky butteriness; a tiny spike of chili heat that almost woke us up from our jet-lag daze. And it wasn’t Japanese.