Is Wednesday still called “hump day?” Well, whether your work week is a straight Monday through Friday shot, or a variation thereon, chances are it has a middle that you need to get past in order to get to the other side. On nights like that I need something fast. But good. Very good. Points are awarded if it’s easy to clean up after. And leftovers for the next day’s lunch are a big plus.
This has become my go-to for such evenings. Like all favorite foods, this one has a story. I first posted it and the recipe on the lovely food52.com, where I’m known as boulangere. It was early last August, not long after I had returned from Italy and France with the dancing daughter. Since then, it’s garnered over 5,000 views, and 175 people have saved it. Neither is even close to a record for food52, but it has certainly been fun to read peoples’ responses to the both the story and the dish. Here are both. It’s what I’m having for dinner tonight. I hope you’ll enjoy trying it as well, and if you do, please pass it along to friends who have humps of their own to get past.
It was the first of many evenings without George Clooney. On the flight from Paris to Florence, we flew over Lake Como, nestled in the verdant hills almost due north of Florence. It is unmistakable from the air. We all know that Mr. Clooney has a castle, or palace, or villa, or something grand there. I may not be the only one who fantasizes about dropping in to borrow una tazza di zucchero. Having failed to pack my parachute, I could only sigh.
On the flight to Paris, I’d been trapped in a window seat on the wrong side of the restrooms since approximately Newfoundland by a nice nurse of the missionary persuasion. She’d been traveling between family in the U.S. and Africa’s Ivory Coast for 40 years. She knew how to sleep on a plane. I can be quite polite. So I was a little ragged when I flopped into Florence at 3:00 in the afternoon, 18 hours after I had first taken off (though it was a couple of days before I was capable of doing the math).
Leaving the airport was like walking into a pizza oven. Hot. Seriously hot. I took a taxi to the daughter’s apartment, where the kind concierge was expecting me and let me in. I forced myself to stay awake until the daughter arrived a couple of hours later, but don’t ask me how. I was determined to start living on Italian time from the start so as not to miss one precious moment of the whole experience. I suspect a shower was involved, and probably a change of clothes. Lordy, it was hot. How few clothes could I get away with? I was never going to see most of these people again, right?
When the daughter and her roommates arrived home, the first thing she did was take me for a walk along the Arno and around her neighborhood: the favorite café, the nearest market, and most important, the best gelato place. With free wifi. Have I mentioned it was hot? I didn’t exactly hang on the daughter’s arm, beg abjectly and weep, but I did suggest that perhaps for just the first night we could have dinner Americanly early rather than Europeanly late. The daughter, who was getting by on the 10,000 calorie a day extreme dancer’s diet, was up for it.
She took me to their favorite student-priced restaurant. I felt myself disintegrating, practically hallucinating. I wasn’t sure I could make myself understood in English, let alone Italian. I was easy pickings. I don’t recall what the daughter ordered (pizza would be a safe guess). But I will never, ever forget this pasta. I took the first bite. My mouth dropped open. I gasped. I gently set my fork down in my plate and folded my hands in my lap. I very slowly said, “This. Is. The best thing. I have ever tasted. In my entire. Life.” The daughter, who’d been eating like that for a month, sort of shrugged – oh, that old thing – and tucked into whatever she had ordered. If this re-creation – I believe one says “avatar” these days – comes even slightly close to the one I tasted that night, you may get to experience some of what I did. And I really don’t believe it was the fatigue talking. Make it with and for people you love. Buon apetito.
Serves 2 with leftovers
1/2 package spaghetti or bucatini*
Sea or kosher salt
Good olive oil, and lots of it
1 pint cherry or grape tomatoes of whatever colors are to hand, halved
2 or 3 good sized cloves garlic, minced
1 can tuna packed in olive oil**, not drained, opened
A couple of generous handfuls of spinach leaves, stems pulled off
Juice of half a lemon
Sea or kosher salt and pepper to taste
A good Parmesan or Romano cheese
* Bucatini is an ingenious pasta. It has the appearance of being thicker than spaghetti, but appearances are deceiving. It is actually hollow. An open tube runs its entire length, which means that it cooks very quickly, and it naps a sauce in a way spaghetti can only dream about. I am amazed that I can reliably find it at Albertson’s. It’s definitely worth searching out. Pick up a few packages of it, and keep it on hand in your pantry. Whatever you do, don’t use a thin, delicate pasta. This sauce needs one that can stand up to strong flavors and textures.
** Tuna packed in olive oil is another treasure to have around. The water packed stuff will not work here. Not at all. This needs the tenderness and flavor of tuna in olive oil. Yes, it’s a bit more expensive, and worth every dime. Ortiz yellowfin, at the high end, can be found on Amazon.com at $10.99 for an 11-ounce jar. Amazon also has 4-ounce tins of Ortiz white tuna in olive oil in a 4-pack for $23.57 ($5.89 each). Cost Plus World Market here in town carries a 6-ounce tin of yellowfin for $2.99. If they happen to be out of it, I can also find a larger tin (sorry, can’t remember the size) at my neighborhood deli and wine store for $6.95. I have strong feelings about supporting local businesses. Yes, Cost Plus has stores nationwide; the people the local store employs all live right here.
Start heating a large pot of generously salted water (it should taste like the ocean). This comes together fast.
- Set a skillet over medium-high heat. It should be large enough to hold the sauce and pasta at the end. Force yourself to add 2 or 3 times as much good olive oil as you usually would; we’re not “filming” any pans here. This is all about the bold flavors of delicate ingredients. Use a good 5 ounces. It’s going to be an essential part of the flavor profile. Besides, olive oil is one of the “good” fats.
- When the oil is hot (it’ll shimmer, or ribbon), add the halved tomatoes. They’ll cook along quickly, releasing those precious juices to concentrate in all that lovely olive oil. It the skillet is too spattery, turn the heat down a bit. As the tomatoes begin to soften, add the garlic. When it’s very fragrant, add the tuna and its oil. Break up any large chunks with a wooden spoon. Turn down the heat to a good simmer.
- Check the cook time for the pasta. Drop the pasta into the water. Set a timer for 3 minutes less than the recommended cook time. Multi-tasking necessary here: keep a set of tongs to hand to gently move the pasta around so that it doesn’t sink and stick, and also to move the sauce ingredients about.
- When the timer goes off for the pasta, don’t taste it! I’m going to ask you take a leap of faith and trust me. If you taste it, you’ll think it needs to cook longer, and you’ll wind up overcooking it. Italians eat their pasta way more dente than al, and if you can work with me here, you’ll understand why and you will never overcook pasta again. Besides, it’s going to cook some more in the sauce. Use tongs to lift the pasta out of the boiling water and drop it directly into the skillet. Dip out a couple of good ladles of pasta water and add to the skillet. Move everything around and together with your tongs. Stick a finger into it and give it a taste. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Toss in the spinach. Squeeze in the lemon juice. Move everything around until spinach is just wilted. This should all take no more than 2 minutes. Use your tongs to lift the pasta out onto plates. Divide any remaining sauce between them. Grate some good cheese over the top if you wish, though cheese typically is not served with fishy pastas in Italy. Serve with slices of focaccia or baguette so that not one drop of sauce is left behind. You’ll be a happier person for it.
As noted, this all comes together very quickly, so be on your toes. It got me over the hump of my first night in Florence, and was worth the price of the entire trip to have tasted it. With my daughter. I was in heaven. Villa, schmilla. George was on his own.