16 August 2011

Pasta Salad with Arugula, Tuna, and Corn

When I studied abroad in Florence, Italy for a semester during college, I ate lunch at the same place almost every day. I'd avoid the mediocre offerings and clique-ish scene at the college's little in-house cafe and instead venture to a little coffee shop and bar about a block and a half away. If I ever knew the name of this place it's long forgotten now, but I will never forget the courage I had to muster to place my order in Italian, choosing a sandwich from the offerings behind a small glass case, and later when I had a better command of the language, from the daily menu written on a chalkboard. I will always remember, and continue to crave even now a decade later, the delicious sandwiches that were my reward.

Incredibly tiny by American standards, this little shop run by two middle-aged sisters and their elderly father was usually packed with locals and students, young and old. I would place my order with one of the sisters, and the other would compose the sandwich on a small, perfectly crusty loaf of bread baked in-house. Their white-haired father ran the bar, pulling espresso and liquor shots, and he also served as cashier. While I occasionally ventured to try one of the daily offerings--grilled eggplant and cheese being a favorite--I was committed, mostly, to the tuna sandwich.

Simple and unfussy with only a few ingredients, this was by no means an ordinary tuna sandwich. Large chunks of oil-packed tuna, the flavor and texture of which is unmatched by any I've ever found stateside, were layered in with very thinly sliced tomato, some arugula, and a few capers. Sometimes I'd request a bit of spicy mustard too. Pressed firmly together and wrapped in paper, I'd carry the sandwich a few blocks down the street to the photography studio where I spent the afternoons. There I'd savor it as slowly as I could, quietly enjoying the simple perfection of quality ingredients--the slightly metallic taste of the tuna, cut by the bite of arugula, sweetness of the tomato, and acidity of the capers and mustard. Binding it all together, the incomparably tasty olive oil from the tuna soaked through the ends of the bread by the time I got to the last few bites.

I have never been able to recreate that sandwich. There's just not the right bread here, not to mention the tuna or even the tomatoes. I think about it from time to time, though, and try to conjure up something similarly simple and delicious in its honor. This pasta salad is one such attempt.

Pasta Salad with Tuna, Arugula, and Corn

1 bunch arugula
1 shallot
handful of green olives or about 2 tablespoons capers
1 ear of corn
1 can olive-oil packed tuna, partially drained
about 1/2 box or bag of small pasta (I use Racconto whole wheat bowties-my fave)
salt and pepper to taste, red pepper flakes (optional)
chopped cherry tomatoes (optional, I didn't have any but suggest adding)

Bring a pot of salted water to boil and cook the pasta according to package directions. Meanwhile, cook the corn (I like to shuck it and cook, turning once, for 2 minutes in the microwave). When it's cool enough, cut the kernels from the cob. Wash, stem and roughly chop arugula. Dice olives and shallot. Combine shallot and olives/capers in a bowl with the tuna, breaking it apart a bit with a fork. Add corn, tomatoes, and arugula and then the pasta after it's cooked, drained and mostly cooled. Toss together with a little olive oil, salt & pepper, and red pepper flakes to taste and enjoy!