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.

58 Comments

  • martina
    I like it, nice taste, but I would not call it tuna.
  • Helene
    Thanks for another thrilling and innovative recipie - you really help energizing my cooking. And that has been going on for years! I am very grateful for your input. However I find the measure cup confusing, esp on A blog without clear "nationality". In Sweden eg cup in a recipie usually means coffecup = 150 ml. In us 250 ml or something else. In this recipie this is maybe not cricial but a ( (=x ml) in your recipies would for sure help. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cup_(unit) Love from helene
    • Hi Helene, oh sorry we missed adding that. We usually add both metric and imperial measurements to all our recipes. The volume 1 cup is equivalent to 250 ml and 1 cup sunflower seeds weighs approx 140 grams. We have added that info to the recipe now. Thank you for pointing it out. /David
  • Vegan tuna... ingenuous! Can't wait to try this, looks so yummy!! Check out our Vegan February post : http://www.mimazine.co.uk/ xxx
  • Hey there! My friend and I are young entrepreneurs and we have just come out with our product. We have hand decorated mason jars and put the dry ingredients in them to make a wholesome and delicious treat. Right now, we have four recipes. Attached to the mason jars are a list of ingredients that we provide, a list of wet ingredients the consumer needs (3-4), a recipe card, and an information card talking a bit about how some of the ingredients used are better options for you body. Would love it if you checked out our website! www.sweetandmelty.com
  • I'm not much for imitating meat, but you had me at "salty seas and umami". I'll be keeping this recipe on the docket for the next time I want a special pasta.
  • Wow, I just made the tuna salad component of this and am blown away. Left out the nori since I didn't have any in the pantry and this was still amazing. Added a few tablespoons of tahini to make it a little creamier since I'm stuffing it in a sandwich for travels tomorrow. Thanks guys, can't wait to try this in the pasta next time! Oh, and always enjoy hearing about your family life in the posts too. :-)
  • I love your recipe! Would have never thought of using sunflower seeds this way but I've already put it on my "Things to try" list. Thanks for the inspiration!
  • Oh my gosh, how I love your writing and Elsa, of course! ;) It made me smile a lot and by the way: so happy knowing that there is someone else in this world who's writing blog posts while listening to a single song on repeat. All the best for you from Berlin! Theresa
  • george
    This sounds totally delicious! Can't wait to try.Thank you for motivation to stay on course with wonderful inspiration. Keep it coming!
  • Jenny
    How many servings makes this recipe?
    • Hi Jenny, it is 4 generous servings. Will add it to the recipe right away. Thanks for pointing it out! /D
  • Wow here in Italy in my family we eat tuna tomato pasta a lot..however, as I'm pregnant, I should limit consumption of this kind of fish apparently (due to mercury content). And that's why I am going to try this *tomorrow*..and for the rest of the Summer, I suppose! Thanks for the never ending inspiration
  • Well if I didn't just nearly fall off my seat when I read this ;) I love, love your rendition of the magical sunflower seed mix here! I have got to give it a whirl soon. Right after I eat my weight in smoothies from your new book that just arrived (!!!) it is AMAZING you two. Big hearts.
    • Hi Jessie! We loved your version, thank you so much for the inspiration. And we're thrilled to hear that you like the new book! Big love! D&L
  • Lilith
    Oh such a beautiful intro – love it ! Happy sign language class :-)
  • It's awesome that Elsa is learning sign language! She sounds like a very bright and energetic little girl :) This dish speaks to my heart on so many levels... I wish my Italian grandfather were still alive so I could make this for him. He instilled in me a huge love of pasta, so I know he would have loved this penne pomodoro!
  • Bee
    Thank you! So excited to try this as I love tuna. Love your book when ch I received as a gift last month and has given me a new lease of life - so inspiring : )
  • I didn't know I can use soaked sunflowers to make a dish like this. I will use this recipe for our Sunday dinner and can't wait to cook it. By the way... Your smoothie book is the best I ever read.
  • Elsa is so funny :D By the way, this tuna-tomato recipe reminds me of a dish my mom used to prepare when we spent some weeks at our vacation home ; my dad and I used to stay at the beach until 1 pm while my mum was cooking lunch, that often consisted in "riso al tonno" - rice + tomato sauce + canned tuna. This dish should be able to evoke some childhood memories...

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