Penne Pomodoro with Vegan “Tuna”

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I have crawled up in a rusty canopy swing with the computer in my lap, spiderweb from the canopy tangled up in my hair, Mr Bojangles on repeat (I always write with a single song on repeat in my ears) and Elsa balancing on my legs. We are spending a few days at my dad’s summerhouse and while Luise is drawing with Isac, I wanted to tell you about this pasta dish that we cooked and photographed the other day.

I’m trying to formulate my thoughts into words. How soaked sunflower seeds almost magically get the texture of canned tuna when mixed in a food processor. But it’s not easy. Elsa is using every muscle in her body to steal my attention from the computer screen. Her mouth is forming words (that I can’t hear because of the earplugs), her head is jumping from side to side while her eyes are actively seeking mine. She is smacking her hands together right in front of my face and she grins when I finally look up from the computer and pull out the earplugs.

– Do you know what this means on sign language? She asks me with giggle in her voice while she keeps smacking her hands together and then pointing at herself.

– No, tell me.

– I want a saaaaandwich!

– Are you hungry?

– No, I’m just teaching you sign language.

– Ok, nice. But I’m working right now. Maybe you can teach me more later?

– Ok. Just one more. Do you know what this is? [Taps her forehead with her hand and pulls it away in a half circle.]

– Ehm, maybe a unicorn?

– Nooo stupid, it means thank you. Actually, I think I want a sandwich.

– Maybe you can ask mom to help you?

– Okaaaaaaay.

She jumps down and runs into the house. Earplugs back in. I’m guessing that I have approx 5 mins to write this. Here we go.

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It’s not often that we create dishes that mimics meat. In fact, we often do the opposite by letting the vegetables shine in all their glory. I don’t remember eating tuna a lot before I became a vegetarian, but after having seen a few vegan sunflower seed “tuna” recipes on the web (especially this beautiful Tuna Tartine from Faring-Well) I suddenly got this weird craving for it. So we decided to give fake-tuna a try. By pulsing soaked sunflower seeds in a food processor together with salty capers, shallots, oil, apple cider vinegar, lemon and nori sheet, you actually get something that looks weirdly similar to canned tuna with a crumbly, moist texture and a flavour that reminds me of salty seas and umami.

Most recipes we’ve seen use this sunflower seed tuna as a spread or as a tuna salad (often with the addition of celery and herbs) but we instead added it to a tomato sauce and served it with penne, creating a classic Italian poor mans dish. The vegan “tuna” adds a nice texture to the sauce and it improves the flavour as well. The kids loved it! It is a simple recipe if you are on a budget and it is a tad more special than your basic pasta pomodoro. So go put your sunflower seeds in water and pretend they are a fish.

I can see Elsa eyeballing me from the window now so I better round this up. I have got a class in imaginative sign language up ahead with my favourite teacher.

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Penne Pomodoro with Vegan “Tuna”
Serves 4

It’s important to soak the sunflower seeds to achieve the right texture so don’t skip that step. If you’ve got some white wine opened in the fridge, you can add a glug of that for extra depth and flavour.

Vegan Tuna
140 g / 1 cup raw sunflower seeds, soaked in water for 6 hours or overnight
1 small shallot or red onion, minced
3 tbsp capers + brine

1 tbsp lemon juice
1 tbsp cold-pressed olive oil (coconut oil, ghee or butter)

1 tsp apple cider vinegar
1/2 tsp sea salt

1/2 sheet of nori (the seaweed you use for sushi), cut into tiny pieces (optional)

Pomodoro Sauce
1 onion

2 cloves of garlic
2 tbsp olive oil
3 x 400 g / 14 oz cans of chopped tomatoes
1 handful fresh basil or 2 tsp dried

sea salt
freshly ground black pepper

Serve with
Pasta of choice (we use wholegrain penne or a gluten free version made from dried beans)
80 g / 1/2 cup large capers
fresh parsley, finely chopped
ruccola

To prepare the “tuna”, simply add all ingredients to a food processor. Pulse a few times until it you have a coarsely textured mixture. Taste and add more salt, lemon juice or vinegar. Pulse again and scoop the mixture into a bowl.

Peel and finely chop the onion and garlic. Place a large sauce pan on medium heat and add olive oil. Sauté the onion and garlic for a few minutes until fragrant. Add tomatoes, basil, salt and pepper. Bring to the boil, reduce the heat and simmer for about 30 minutes. Taste and adjust the flavours throughout. Add a splash of water or white wine if it starts looking dry.

Meanwhile, cook the pasta according to the instructions on the package.

When the tomato sauce is ready, stir in 2/3 of the “tuna”, saving the rest for serving. Divide the pasta in 4 bowls, top with tomato sauce, capers, fresh parsley and a drizzle of olive oil.