First of all, apologies for the delay in posting. For several days I was unable to access my own site from my computer, even though everyone else could view it just fine from any browser. My host and I spent three days trying to figure things out, and at the third they finally got it and we were able to resolve it. All of that, of course, while I was preparing to move again, which I have now done. My pups and I are happily ensconced in another adorable cottage, this time up the slopes of magical Mount Tamalpais, just this side of the Golden Gate. Only for a week, though, as next week we are heading back to Napa for a couple of months. The loading and unloading of my car is becoming a finely tuned art form.
Back to the present… In an attempt to keep things varied, I try to avoid posting two recipes too close to one another, but this time I just had to. Tomatoes and basil are abundant in the garden right now, and this recipe is perfect for the hot summer season. After six months of not being able to cook due to a lack of a full kitchen, I have been cooking pasta and making fancy salads almost every day since getting back to Marin!
This recipe is one from my teen years, and I had not made in in quite some time, at least 5-6 years, so you see, I just had to. It is easy, flavorful and inexpensive, especially if you also have a few tomatoes and some basil growing in the garden. It is also quick to make and, if you are making it for just 4-5 people, you can prepare the sauce in the time it takes the water to boil and the pasta to cook.
I got this recipe from my aunt Luciana, who first ate it at a restaurant somewhere in Tuscany years ago, and it is now a family classic. The name is the one originally given by that restaurant: Spaghetti alla Duchessa; I just changed the middle part to à la to suit the English french-ism I have seen used in these phrasings. Duchessa, of course, is Italian for duchess. Who knows, maybe there was a duchess who was a regular at that restaurant, or maybe whoever came up with the recipe was nicknamed that way. The possibilities are not endless, but I would say several, and they are anybody’s guess. In any case, the ingredients are few and simple, but when you use the best quality ones, that is when things get good.
SPAGHETTI À LA DUCHESSA
yields: 5-6 portions
- 450 gr. (1 lb) spaghetti, this is usually 1 box, and best if imported from Italy; I use De Cecco, or other Italian artisanal pasta – I no longer use Barilla because it is now made in the U.S. under license, this means U.S. wheat, which means GMO for sure
- 6-7 medium tomatoes (see image above and below for size reference), if they are bigger you will need less
- 1 jar of tuna ventresca or fillets in olive oil, and just in olive oil, no other flavorings
- a small bunch of fresh basil (about 6-7 leaves per person, depending on size)
- extra-virgin olive oil
- seal salt
- coarse sea salt
STEP 1 – Bring abundant water to a boil in a large pot. In the meantime, rinse and dry the tomatoes, and make a cross incision on the bottom. Do not cut too deep. Drain away the oil from the tuna through a sieve. Place the tuna fillets in a large bowl and break them up with your fingers. The reason why you drain away the olive oil from the tuna is that, though regular olive oil is ideal for preserving, it is not the best for dressing the salad – or any preparation, really.
STEP 2 – When the water reaches the boiling point, add the coarse sea salt. Then add the tomatoes and let simmer for about 10-15 seconds at the most. You just need to blanch them to make it easy to peel them. Remove them from the boiling water with a spider strainer. Now add the spaghetti to the boiling water so they can cook. Remove the peel from the tomatoes, cut them in four and remove the seeds and water. Then cut the wedges into strips and into cubes. Place the cubed tomatoes in the bowl with the tuna.
Wash and pat dry the basil leaves, and place them one on top of the other with the largest on the bottom. Roll them up tight lengthwise, then slice them into a julienne crosswise. Place the basil strips in the bowl with the tuna and tomato. Dress with a couple of Tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil and, if needed, add a little sea salt and stir. Adding salt will depend on the tuna: one time I needed to add a little salt, another I did not because I used a different tuna. So taste first.
STEP 3 – When the spaghetti are cooked al dente, strain them through a pasta strainer and rinse them well under cold running water, making sure to cool them all down to room temperature. When you can touch them without scalding your fingers, use your hand to stir them well, so the cold water reaches all the spaghetti. Let sit and drain well for a few minutes. You don’t want your salad watery, so make sure you strain out all the water. If the pasta is cooked before you are done with chopping and slicing you can just let it sit in the strainer while you finish. Just make sure you rinse it straight away. A note, because I have been asked this: making a pasta salad is the only time you rinse your pasta after cooking it!!! See the multiple !!! ? Good. And this rinsing with cold water process is the same no matter what pasta you choose to use in your pasta salad.
Add the cooled and drained spaghetti to the bowl with the tuna, tomato and basil, add 2-3 more Tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil and stir. Using your hands to do this is the best way, as you can reach deep and bring up all the sauce, which tends to go sit on the bottom. Test for salt and adjust as needed. The pasta is read to be served. Divide it up onto plates, or bring to the table in a large serving bowl.
Though it will keep just fine in the refrigerator, this pasta salad is at its best served immediately. When you chill it in the refrigerator, the spaghetti tend to stiffen, and loose that slippery flexibility that is part of the textural delight of this dish. Should you want to make it ahead of time for a party or a picnic, I suggest you use bowtie (we call them farfalle, butterflies, in Italy) or penne pasta instead.
A little note about the tuna: There are several brands, and some are better than others, but in Italy, good chunky tuna in olive oil is the standard. I am saying this because, over the years, I have purchased several brands of canned tuna here in the U.S., some in oil, some in water, some like this, some like that, this brand, that brand and, upon opening, they all turned out to be disappointingly crumbly and watery. Which is why I am suggesting the type of tuna you see in the photo; not necessarily that brand, of course, just the type. It may be a couple of dollars more, but it will be worth it.
Let me know how you like it!