I'm an avid home cook, but preparing three meals a day, as many of us have been doing during this pandemic, can be taxing, to say the least. Food shopping becomes an ordeal rather than a pleasure, and the mere thought of planning may seem too much.
When I'm at a loss, wondering what to cook that is appealing and relatively easy, I scan the nonperishable items in my pantry and take a glance at the fridge and freezer. Often, I come across some forgotten treasure, making a trip to the store unnecessary.
As I rifled through the canned goods assortment recently, it occurred to me that a fish dinner was in the cards. It would not require a fishing pole or a visit to the fishmonger — just a can opener and a few other staple ingredients.
Seafood from a can doesn't have to be survival fare: Superior preserved products are a delicacy, if your budget allows. It's worth the investment to pay a little more for high-quality anchovies and Ventresca tuna, and a joy to find them lurking in the cupboard.
Among my bounty was a tin of anchovies, a jar of tuna filets in oil and a couple of cans of baby clams. I also found a jar of Italian sun-dried tomatoes and a can of Spanish piquillo peppers. With a box of spaghetti, a bit of bacon and a bag of frozen peas, a stellar menu was coming together.
For a mouthwatering snack, there would be crostini, the endlessly variable Italian standby. This version would be simplicity itself: thin slices of toasted day-old baguette or ciabatta, rubbed with garlic, smeared with a dab of chopped sun-dried tomato and topped with a bit of anchovy.
I was so happy to find the piquillo peppers, bright red, roasted and peeled, ready to stuff. Every tapas bar in Spain serves them, sometimes with a filling of creamy salt cod or a slice of sheep's milk cheese. But a clear favorite for many is piquillos with a filling of seasoned, dressed tuna. They would be my first course.
Finally, for a main, I made a garlicky basil-parsley puree to toss with the clams and spaghetti, and kicked up the flavor with green chile, bacon and peas. The overall effect was very bright.
Of course, you could serve any of these dishes by itself. Crostini are welcome any time drinks are served. The stuffed peppers could be served as a light lunch, and a big plate of pasta can certainly suffice for a whole meal. But having them together in one festive menu gave us time to linger at the table, enjoying companionship and discussing the complex challenges we face at this moment in time.
If you have sun-dried tomatoes and anchovies on hand, turn to these little toasts, which are simple to assemble. The intense combination of flavors — sweet and salty — creates an ideal savory bite. This particular recipe makes eight crostini, enough for four polite diners to have two each before dinner. Scale up if your crowd is a bit more ravenous.
Crostini With Sun-Dried Tomato and Anchovy
- 8 baguette or ciabatta slices, cut about ¼-inch thick
- 1 garlic clove, peeled
- ¼ cup chopped sun-dried tomato
- 4 anchovy filets
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- Red-pepper flakes
- 1 teaspoon fresh rosemary, finely chopped
- Flaky salt (optional)
Toast the bread, then lightly rub each slice with the garlic clove. Just two quick swipes will make it garlicky enough. Spread each toast with about 1 teaspoon sun-dried tomato, and top with half an anchovy filet. Drizzle each toast with a little olive oil, and sprinkle with red pepper and rosemary. Add a tiny bit of flaky salt and serve.
Makes 4 servings.
Chopped capers, parsley, red onion, lemon zest and fruity olive oil flavor the tuna mixture that's then spooned into these sweet piquillo peppers. A few of these make a zesty first course, served with crisp lettuce leaves and hard-cooked egg. (If piquillos are not available, canned roasted bell peppers are a good substitute.)
Tuna-Stuffed Piquillo Peppers
- 1 (6- to 7-ounce) jar high-quality Spanish or Italian tuna
- 1 tablespoon small capers or roughly chopped large capers
- 2 tablespoons chopped parsley
- 1 teaspoon chopped mint
- ¼ cup celery, tender center stalks and leaves
- ½ cup finely diced red onion or chopped scallions
- Salt and pepper
- ½ teaspoon red-pepper flakes, or to taste
- 1 teaspoon lemon zest PLUS 2 tablespoons lemon juice (from 1 lemon)
- 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 12 piquillo peppers, from a jar
- Lettuce leaves, for garnish (optional)
- Hard-cooked eggs, for garnish (optional)
Drain the tuna and put it in a medium mixing bowl. Use a fork to break tuna into large flakes and push to one side of the bowl.
Put capers, parsley, mint, celery and onions on the other side of the bowl and season to taste with salt and pepper. Add red-pepper flakes, lemon zest, lemon juice and olive oil, then stir the mixture to coat tuna well.
Use a teaspoon to fill each pepper with some of the tuna mixture.
Arrange stuffed peppers on lettuce leaves on a platter. Garnish with quartered or halved hard-cooked eggs sprinkled with salt. Serve at cool room temperature.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.
When you're far from the sea or the fishmonger, you can reach for canned baby clams, as they make a very decent main-course pasta ingredient. There is great variation between brands. Most are mild in flavor and some are not briny tasting at all. I find they always need a bit of perking up and take well to aggressive seasoning. (The liquid in the cans, as opposed to bottled clam juice, is usually rather watery and can be discarded.)
Spicy Clam Pasta With Bacon, Peas and Basil
- 1 cup basil leaves, loosely packed, plus some pretty ones reserved for garnish
- 1 cup Italian parsley leaves, loosely packed
- 2 small garlic cloves, minced
- Salt and pepper
- ¼ cup PLUS 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 6 ounces bacon, cut into lardons (1- by ¼-inch strips)
- 2 (10-ounce) cans baby clams, drained
- 1 teaspoon finely chopped serrano chile
- Pinch of red-pepper flakes
- 1 cup frozen peas, thawed
- 1 pound spaghetti
- Lemon wedges
Put basil, parsley and garlic in a mortar or food processor. Add salt and pepper to taste and ¼ cup oil. Pound or whiz to obtain a bright green puree.
Put a pot of water on to boil and salt it generously. (It will boil faster with the lid on.)
Over medium heat, render bacon in its own fat until browned and crisp but not hard, 5 to 8 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside. Pour off fat but leave a small amount in the pan, just to coat the bottom.
Increase heat to medium-high, add 2 tablespoons olive oil, the clams, serrano chile and red pepper. Season with salt and pepper and cook for 2 minutes, stirring and coating clams well. Add peas and warm through, then turn off heat.
Boil pasta and cook until slightly underdone. Drain pasta and add to pan with clams. Turn heat to medium-high and stir all together. Add a splash of pasta water, if it seems dry. Add basil puree and toss well. Top with bacon and reserved basil leaves. Pass lemon wedges.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.
And to Drink …
- Pasta with clams, canned or not, calls for one type of wine: a lively, incisive white without overt oak or tropical fruitiness. This narrows it down to, oh, hundreds of options, right? You can start with the world of dry Italian whites, which doesn’t make it easier. Vermentino from Liguria? Verdicchio from the Marche? Fiano from Campania? And dozens of others, some well known like Frascati, some virtually unknown. You don’t need to stay in Italy. Aligoté from Burgundy is a great pairing for this dish. You could try a Corsican vermentino, which might be spelled vermentinu on the label. You could open a Greek assyrtiko or a Spanish albarino. Want a red? Sorry, you’re on your own.
- — Eric Asimov