This tuna pesto pasta recipe is a quick and simple pesto pasta with canned tuna and greens. From start to finish, it takes about 30 minutes, so you can make it on a weeknight. Or, if you make the arugula spinach pesto in advance, it takes only the time for the pasta to cook.
Normally at the Ugly Duckling Bakery blog we recommend using the freshest, in-season ingredients. But there are times, particularly some seasons, that call for year-round greens and canned or frozen foods.
Why you’ll love this recipe
- Quick and easy
- Lots of possible variations
- Hidden vegetables for picky eaters
This recipe for tuna pesto pasta was inspired by the linguine with tuna, lemon, and rocket (Linguine al Tonno, Limone, e Rughetta) I first made with Diane Seed in Rome a decade ago. I was only in Italy because landslides closed Machu Picchu. But I learned many lessons about Italian cooking during those three days I spent one-on-one with Diane Seed in her Rome kitchen, and I’ll share them with you throughout this blog.
The classic pesto alla Genovese uses basil leaves, which are one of the highlights of summer produce. Pesto comes from the Italian “pestare,” meaning “to pound” or “to grind.” This refers to the traditional method of making pesto using a mortar and pestle.
This arugula spinach pesto is made the same way as Pesto alla Genovese using greens, nuts, garlic, parmesan, olive oil, and salt. It makes the following additions and substitutions:
- Arugula and spinach, so you can make winter pesto for this pesto pasta any time of year.
- Walnuts instead of pine nuts. Walnuts better match the astringency in the greens. But also the increasing demand for pine nuts has resulted in deforestation of the pine trees that these “nuts” come from and loss of important ecosystem. You can read more about that here in the New York Times.
- Lemon zest and juice to brighten up the flavor.
The pasta dish adds canned tuna and dry pasta. Tuna packed in oil is generally moister, more tender, and more flavorful than tuna packed in water. Use tuna packed in oil in salads and when you want to taste the tuna. Use less-expensive tuna packed in water when using mayonnaise or in cheesy casseroles.
For the pasta, you’d use linguine if you wanted to stay true to the original Diane Seed recipe. However, the tuna chunks really are best with short chunky pasta shapes. Try a shape that also holds the pesto, like fusilli or cavatappi. Or this might be the perfect recipe for cascatelli.
Tip from the wise quacker: the general rule is that your pasta should match your sauce. Use long thin noodles like spaghetti with a thinner sauce. Use long, flat noodles like fettucine with a thicker ragu. And use short, chunky shapes with chunky sauces. But as with all of these food rules, the most important rule is to ignore the rule if you prefer something else!
Variations and substitutions
- Sear fresh tuna in place of canned.
- Replace the tuna with cooked chicken for a chicken pesto pasta.
- Use only arugula, as in the original Diane Seed recipe. An arugula pesto has more peppery flavor. Or use only spinach or kale if you want less of that flavor.
- Substitute pine nuts or pistachios for the toasted walnuts.
- Use any store-bought pesto for an even quicker pesto pasta.
- Make it creamier by adding heavy cream to the pesto and warming it slightly before serving.
Recipe tips and tricks
For the quickest start to finish, the first thing to do is turn on your oven to toast your walnuts. Toasting nuts, whether for pesto or for baking, like in this coffee and walnut loaf cake, gives you a deeper nutty flavor.
Making the pesto
For a quick weeknight meal, use your food processor. And you can use your food processor to blitz your walnuts, Parmesan, and garlic so you don’t have to chop them!
Then add the arugula and spinach, olive oil, lemon juice and zest, and a bit of salt. Taste and add more olive oil or salt to get to your desired taste and consistency.
The nice thing about this arugula spinach pesto is that it doesn’t oxidize and go brown as quickly as does basil pesto. However, it’s still a good idea to cover it with plastic wrap if you are not going to use it immediately.
Putting it all together
Set a large pot of water to boil over high heat. Don’t salt your pasta water until it’s at a full boil, or the salt may pit your pot. When it returns to a boil, add your pasta and cook until al dente.
Meanwhile, drain the oil from your can of tuna. When the pasta is al dente, reserve a cup of pasta water, then drain the pasta, and return it to the pasta pot. Add the arugula spinach pesto to the warm pasta, and use a splash of pasta water to thin the pesto if it is not sticking to your noodles.
You can serve this tuna pesto pasta warm or at room temperature, but be sure to add the pesto to the pasta when it’s still warm. That way the pasta absorbs the pesto and will taste that much better!
What to serve with this tuna pesto pasta
- Make a side salad like this rainbow salad or peach and burrata caprese salad.
- Soak up the yumminess on your plate with this semolina bread loaf.
- For wine, go with a crisp white wine like a pinot grigio or sauvignon blanc. Or mix up an Aperol Negroni to sip alongside.
The linguine with tuna, lemon, and rocket that inspired this tuna pesto pasta recipe can be found in The Top One Hundred Pasta Sauces by Diane Seed.
Well, yes. Traditionally, Italians do not use Parmesan or other cheese with seafood pasta. You can skip the Parmesan if you want to be rigid about your eating. But I think of this more as a pesto pasta with tuna than a seafood pasta, and you’d better be sure I’m adding Parmesan to my pesto pasta!
If you have leftover pesto after making this tuna pasta recipe, freeze it in plastic containers. Or freeze it in ice cube trays to add small amounts to eggs or other dishes. I use pesto as a creamy pesto dressing for salad or sandwich spread, as a base layer on top of pizza dough, or even in a babka.
Check out other pasta recipes from uglyducklingbakery like:
Looking for a recipe for fresh tuna? Check out my rainbow poke bowl with seared tuna.
Love this recipe? Please leave a 5-heart 💜💜💜💜💜 rating in the recipe card below. Let me know how much you loved it, or any problems you had, in the comments section further down.
Tuna Pesto Pasta with Arugula Spinach Pesto and Canned Tuna
- Food processor
Arugula spinach pesto
- ½ cup walnuts, toasted
- 1 to 2 cloves garlic
- 1 ounce Parmesan plus more for serving
- 10 ounces baby arugula and spinach leaves
- ¼ cup olive oil plus more as needed
- lemon zest from one small lemon
- 1 to 2 tablespoons lemon juice plus more to taste1
- 1 teaspoon salt
Tuna pesto pasta
- 1 pound short, thick pasta like cavatappi, fusilli, or penne
- 2 cans (10 ounces) tuna packed in oil
- Heat a pot of water on high while making the pesto.
Arugula spinach pesto
- Add the toasted walnuts, garlic, and Parmesan to the food processor and blitz until fine.½ cup walnuts, toasted, 1 to 2 cloves garlic, 1 ounce Parmesan
- Add the arugula and spinach, olive oil, lemon zest and juice, and salt and blitz, scraping down as needed until all of the leaves have been chopped into a puree. You may need to add more olive oil to get it to your desired consistency.10 ounces baby arugula and spinach leaves, lemon zest from one small lemon, 1 to 2 tablespoons lemon juice, ¼ cup olive oil, 1 teaspoon salt
Tuna pesto pasta
- When the water is at a full boil, add salt and then wait for it to return to a boil.
- Add the pasta and cook per the instructions until al dente (it should be cooked through but still be slightly firm when you take a bite).1 pound short, thick pasta like cavatappi, fusilli, or penne
- Turn off the burner, reserve a cup of pasta water, drain the pasta, and return it to the pasta pot. Add pesto and stir, adding more to your taste. Use a splash of pasta water to create a thin sauce if the pesto is not sticking to your pasta.
- Drain and discard the oil from the can of tuna and break it into large or small flakes or chunks, depending on your preference. Mix the tuna gently into the pasta.
- Serve warm with additional Parmesan, or let cool to room temperature.2 cans (10 ounces) tuna packed in oil
This tuna pesto pasta recipe with arugula spinach pesto was first posted July 1, 2021. It was last updated April 4, 2023.
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