tuna polpette with fresh tomato and pepper sauce

Doing this job, I’ve found that a lot of people are a bit funny about canned tuna. In fact there are all sorts of foods that people have issues with, usually because of the way they tried something as a child. I love it when I get someone to love something they’d avoided since childhood, so now tuna is on my list of the ingredient that needs a bit of PR. After all, it is such a handy thing to have in for a fast lunch or dinner. I taught this recipe in class recently and had a few tuna conversions so wanted to share it with you too.

This is such a fast store cupboard dinner and makes a good change from meatballs in the summer. It can easily be halved or doubled if you want to feed a crowd. The uncooked balls (polpette sounds so much better) can be frozen. By the way, if you have a better English name than tuna balls please let me know, until then I will use the Italian polpette.

A word on breadcrumbs

Make your own these by blitzing ends of loaves, half eaten pitta bread or any leftover bread in the food processor and use them, or freeze them in a bag. They can be used from frozen so it is worth building up a stash of them. I keep ends of bread in the freezer until I have enough, then have a very satisfying food processor session once they’re defrosted. I then re-freeze the crumbs until I need them. It is fine to have a mixture of white, grainy and brown breads.

The easiest sauce

The sauce I make to go with the polpette is a really useful one and can be served with all kinds of fish or chicken, or with pasta, mozzarella and basil. The sauce can also be frozen. Bonus.

Timing and ease

This is a really easy recipe and can be made with children. It takes less than 20 minutes of hands-on work, 30 minutes from start to finish.

Ingredients (to serve 4)

Tuna polpette

2 x 160g (9oz) cans of tuna in olive or sunflower oil, drained and the oil reserved. Don’t buy the stuff in water or brine this time as you need the lusciousness that the oil gives.

3 heaped dessert spoons of pine nuts

30g (a handful) flat leaf parsley, stalks and leaves

1 lemon

50g (1 cup) fresh breadcrumbs – see note above

1 egg

half a teaspoon dried oregano

a pinch of chilli flakes

a pinch of sea salt and around half a teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Optional – a level teaspoon of cinnamon or a tablespoon drained capers

Fresh tomato and pepper sauce

1 jar roasted red peppers, drained – use whatever size you can buy

4-6 large tomatoes

a pinch of sea salt and around half a teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

around a teaspoon of red wine vinegar, to taste

Choose your carbs and or greens

  • Pasta, giant cous cous (my current fav) or gnocci.
  • Steamed green beans or broccoli.
  • Warmed flatbread.

tuna polpette

To make

  1. Flake the drained tuna into a large bowl and then add the lemon zest, pinenuts, finely chopped parsley stalks and leaves, breadcrumbs, egg, salt, pepper, chili, oregano and cinnamon or capers if using.
  2. Mix together and taste a small pinch to check for seasoning. Add more salt or pepper as needed. Use you hands to roll the mixture into 12 walnut-size balls and place them on a plate. Pop the plate into the fridge for 10 minutes so that the balls firm up. Or freeze the balls on a plate and, when frozen, pop them into a plastic bag or box to store.
  3. While the balls firm up (!), make your sauce by putting the whole tomatoes and the drained peppers in a blender and blitzing until smooth. Taste and add salt, pepper and red wine vinegar until you are happy with the seasoning. Different tomatoes will have different acidity so will need different seasoning. Set aside.
  4. If you are having pasta or cous cous, now is the time to cook it.
  5. To cook the tuna balls – Heat a tablespoon of the oil from the can of tuna in a large nonstick frying pan on a medium high heat. Carefully place the balls into the pan. You may need to do this in two batches depending on the size of the pan. Fry for around 5 minutes, turning after 2 minutes using a spatula and a fork to help gently turn them without breaking them. I can only usually brown them on 3 sides.
  6. Once the balls are golden on the outside, remove them to a plate and pour the sauce into the frying pan to heat through for a couple of minutes. Once the sauce is hot, carefully toss cooked giant cous cous, gnocci or pasta through the sauce before placing the balls on top. Serve immediately with basil, crusty bread and greens.