Italians Do Tuna Salad Better
Tonno e ceci is your ideal summer lunch
In a very exciting development around these parts, basil is making its first-of-the-season debut at the farmer’s market, and tomatoes are not too far away. You likely know the classic Italian ways to use these titans of summer — caprese, pesto, spaghetti pomodoro. But, if you’re like me, you’ll be buying tomatoes and basil in bulk until October, and you’ll need plenty of recipes for all that produce. Allow me to preemptively kick off tomato-basil season with a beautiful dish that technically doesn’t always feature the two, but is nonetheless a perfect vehicle for them: insalata di tonno e ceci, or tuna salad by way of The Boot.
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Tuna salad may conjure up deli-addled visions of mayonnaise with some Chicken of The Sea thrown in, and don’t get me wrong — I love (and frequently eat) a mayo-heavy tuna sandwich from the bodega. But this tuna salad, in classic Italianate fashion, is fresh and bracingly pungent with olive oil, acid, and a rash of red onions; no kaiser roll or griddled rye included. It shows off the delicacy that is high-quality, oil-packed tuna, while the chickpeas give it a nice, creamy heft. And of course, the tomatoes and basil are pure sunshine; they turn this into the perfect summer lunch.
This is a very simple recipe with a few tricks up its sleeve: first and foremost is sourcing the best canned tuna you can find, which for me is usually Ortiz, Tonnino, or Callipo. You could even use oil-packed Genova in a pinch, but be sure to never use tuna in water. Additionally, the recipe uses a tactic that I took from a favorite Sicilian pasta dish, cu l’agghia, which I’ll be featuring here soon: combining sliced cherry tomatoes with the tuna and its oil, along with a pinch of salt and a few basil leaves, and letting it sit for at least a half-hour. This marinates beautifully and produces a delicious slurry of tomato juice and olive oil, which will help to dress the salad.
Finally, this recipe, like many others, is very adaptable. You can use canned chickpeas or make them yourself. Swap out the olives for capers if you’d like, or add some chopped celery, or fresh oregano in lieu of dried, if you have it. A few high-quality anchovies would be nice, or some toasted hunks of day-old bread for something closer to a panzanella. You be the judge; just don’t skimp on the tuna.
Insalata di Tonno e Ceci
1 jar of high-quality tuna packed in olive oil (Ortiz, Tonnino, or Callipo are good brands)
1 can of Goya chickpeas (if you’re using canned, I highly recommend Goya as they are softer and creamier than most other brands)
8-10 cherry tomatoes, sliced in half
Generous handful of torn basil leaves
1 quarter of a red onion, sliced thin on a mandoline
Handful of Castelvetrano or kalamata olives, roughly torn
Extra virgin olive oil
Champagne or red wine vinegar
In a medium-sized bowl, combine the tomatoes, the tuna and all of its oil, and a few leaves of basil. Salt generously and cover with plastic wrap; leave out on the counter to marinate for about 30 minutes. Remove and discard the basil once the 30 minutes is up.
In a large bowl, combine the chickpeas and olives with the tomato-tuna mixture. Add a squeeze of lemon and about 1-2 tablespoons of vinegar (or to taste). Add a few pinches of the dried oregano, a few additional basil leaves, and salt and pepper to taste. Toss vigorously.
Plate this, then add the red onions and more basil leaves on top. Drizzle with olive oil.