On Tuna, and a Zuni Café Pantry Pasta

February  6, 2014

Every other Thursday, we bring you Nicholas Day -- on cooking for children, and with children, and despite children. Also, occasionally, on top of.

Today: Nicholas takes on tuna and modern parenting, and gives us the best pantry pasta he knows.

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Imagine the most mundane, stereotypically kid-friendly food out there -- the sort of food parents lean on when they’re at wit’s end, the sort of infinite shelf life food that’s stocked in the nuclear fallout shelters to prevent the picky kids from going outside. You know: PB&J. Alphabet soup. Macaroni and cheese, powdered.

Then imagine your kids -- if you don’t have kids, imagine them too; that’s easier than having them, frankly -- a few decades from now, when they have kids. And imagine them saying to you: Seriously, you used to feed me boxed macaroni and cheese? Like, that was OK to feed to children?

Because that’s basically what happened with tuna fish.

Not long ago, children were reared on a diet of tuna salad sandwiches. But these days, if you talk about tuna and children, it is assumed that by tuna you mean neurotoxin. Tuna fish is no longer a brown-bagged lunch. It is a mercury delivery device.

Like almost everyone in my generation, I ate a lot of tuna fish growing up (onion, celery, mayo, toast). And I like to think I turned out OK. On the other hand, I did grow up to write this column, so evidence for my okayness is decidedly mixed.

Of course, the evidence for okayness is always mixed.

More: Nicholas on why anchovies make everything better, even for kids.

There’s a good anecdote about this problem -- the evidence-for-okayness-always-being-mixed problem -- in Annie Murphy Paul’s Origins, a book about the mesmerizing new science of prenatal development. She mentions to an expert that her mother drank a bit while pregnant and she -- Annie -- turned out OK. And the expert says: “Are you sure you're fine? What could you have been if she didn't drink?”

Annie’s book was on the cover of the Times Book Review. But what could she have been?

It’s no wonder that we err on the egg salad side of the tuna salad question.

But here’s the weird thing about tuna fish: Not eating it isn’t automatically better for you. Because if you don’t eat tuna, you’re not eating fish, which means -- in all likelihood -- you are eating something that’s less good for you. Because you have to eat something. And although I am a registered lobbyist on behalf of all small, oily fish, even I admit that sardine fish sandwich doesn’t have the same ring.

It’s safe to assume that some people should not eat tuna: people who are pregnant or nursing, people who were recently born. Also, people who dislike tuna. It’s less clear that everyone else should always avoid tuna at all costs. And to make things even more confusing, so-called light tuna, while lower in mercury, has less of what makes fish good for you. It’s less bad for you and less good for you.

Why am I going on about this? It’s not because I have the answer. And it’s not because I miss tuna fish sandwiches either. It’s because I see tuna as a sort of synecdoche for modern parental decision-making -- all the endless on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand-ing. I’ve written about this before: that eventually, to stay sane, a parent in modern America has to stop and slowly repeat the wisdom of the great shtetl philosopher, Tevye -- there is no other hand.

On the other hand -- rim shot -- I do miss the Zuni Café’s pasta with preserved tuna. 

Before pregnancy and infancy complicated our tuna consumption, I made it at least once a month. It is an exquisite pantry pasta. It’s an invidious pantry pasta, actually -- it is unfair to all other pantry pastas. Take some good preserved tuna (or preserve your own). Add lemon zest, pine nuts, capers, fennel seeds, chile flakes, olive oil. Toss with pasta. Consume.

It could be family dinner; it could be post-bedtime dinner. God save family dinner. But there can never be enough reasons to have post-bedtime dinner.

Zuni's Pasta with Preserved Tuna

Serves 4

1 pound pasta
1 tablespoon lemon zest, in thin strips
1 bay leaf
1/2 teaspoon chili flakes (optional)
1/2 teaspoon black pepper (optional)
2 garlic cloves, slivered
1/4 teaspoon fennel seeds
1/4 cup pine nuts
2 tablespoons capers, coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon preserved lemon, rinsed and chopped (optional)
12 ounces olive oil-packed tuna

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Photos by James Ransom

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I'm the author of a book on the science and history of infancy, Baby Meets World. My website is; I tweet over at @nicksday. And if you need any good playdoh recipes, just ask.


eartoday September 1, 2015
I think you meant preserved lemons, not preserved tuna....
SPersaud August 9, 2015
This dish is flavourful and easy to make. The fennel really lifts the flavour. I added an egg yolk to make it richer.
Fairmount_market February 6, 2014
I love pasta with tuna, and look forward to trying this. One version I make quite a bit (from Diane Seed's Top 100 Pasta Sauces) is basically a walnut parsley pesto with tuna in olive oil blended in, which makes it richer and more substantial than regular pesto. My kids like this sauce even though they claim not to like tuna.
cucina D. February 6, 2014
I was raised crafting pasta con tonno for busy weeknights and of course, Christmas Eve dinner.
I love the idea of using preserved lemons (need to try to make these on my own) but we share the same love for fennel seeds, lemon zest, capers, pine nuts and chili flakes. I shared my famiglia's recipe on my food blog and its a huge favorite with the readers. Thanks for this great article and feature on a classic from my childhood that I have loved from first bite.
CHeeb February 6, 2014
I love the tuna/pasta has endless variations that appeal to young and old alike.Thanks for the reminder of a simple