Lunchbox Memories

tuna-packed piquillo peppers


tuna salad with mayo, black pepper, and chopped celery. white bread (crusts off, naturally). green grapes. carrot sticks. wheat thins. a peggy lawton cookie

That was my standard elementary school lunch. The memory came to me a couple of months ago when the good folks at Food52 started tweeting and posting “Amanda’s (Hesser) Kids’ Lunch.” Unsurprisingly, twins Walker and Addie eat better than I do on most some days. On a scale from Lunchables to Amanda’s Kids’ Lunch, I think mine sat respectably in the middle. That’s not too bad considering that access to information about “good food” wasn’t as egalitarian when I was that age as it is now (thank you, internet).

I also remember the never-soggy PB&Js (mom always knew to line both sides of bread with peanut butter) and the French’s yellow mustard-enhanced ham and American cheese sandwiches, but my favorite elementary school lunch was always that tuna sandwich. Refreshingly cold tuna salad, straight from the cooler, with crisp iceberg on a bulkie roll, always sat atop my lap at the beach. I would inevitably get as much sand in my teeth as I did between my little toes. Tuna layered with potato chips punched up my playdates. Tuna melts with mom made the weekend. Mercury poisoning, be damned!*


Nowadays, albacore is sometimes swapped for oil-packed light, mayo for oil, lemon, and dijon. Red onion, shallots, capers, raisins, curry powder, cornichons, olives, chickpeas, white beans, lentils, parsley, and mint are among the mix-ins that join the celery on a rotating basis. I make sandwiches on seven grain and swap white bread for salads. It’s an easy way to add protein to a busy night’s supper. More importantly, though, I’m still obsessed. It’s pure nostalgia. Life was simple when I had a tuna sandwich in hand.

Lately, I’ve been enjoying my tuna as a stuffing for tangy-sweet piquillo peppers. The stuffed peppers can be eaten cold, room temperature, or — as the recipe specifies — gently broiled. They’re meant to be starters, served alongside crusty bread, but I’ve also put them beside marinated artichoke hearts, cured meats, stuffed olives, and cheeses on antipasti boards; topped off my salads with them for lunch; and eaten them as is with a side of vegetables and grains for a perfectly satisfying supper.

I love the original version found in Dorie Greenspan’s Around My French Table. Stuffed with tuna, capers, and olives, the peppers are rich, bright, and filled with flavors of the Côte d’Azur. Since they make such an easy meal and can be prepared in advance, I’ve experimented with fillings. Below, I’ve provided a bastardized Middle Eastern version with hummus as the binder, as well as a French version of classic tuna salad, brought together with luxurious and tangy crème fraîche. The adorable piquillo peppers (which I had never thought to stuff in the past) would also be a lovely casing for a lemony lentil, couscous, or farro salad. The possibilities are endless. Think of the below as ideas, not recipes, and start stuffing.

*In writing this, I discovered that for my height and weight, I should only consume about ½ can of albacore tuna per week. I can safely enjoy more than double that in light tuna.

1) Tuna-Packed Piquillo Peppers
Recipe from Around My French Table

1 5 oz. can chunk light tuna packed in oil, drained
Grated zest of 1/2 lemon
1 tablespoons capers, rinsed and chopped
1 tablespoon minced shallot
4 Niçoise olives (I used Picholine, because I always have them on hand), pitted and chopped
2 teaspoons finely minced parsley
1 tablespoon lemon juice (more or less to taste)
About 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and ground pepper to taste
6-8 piquillo peppers, drained and patted dry

With a fork, lightly toss the tuna in a bowl to break it apart, keeping it flaky. Add zest, capers, shallot, olives, and parsley. Add lemon juice, olive oil, salt, and pepper to taste. You want the mixture to be fully moistened with olive oil.

Carefully open the peppers with your fingers and fill with 1-2 tablespoons of the tuna so that it’s not spilling out. Lightly oil a baking pan and place the peppers inside. Drizzle some oil on the peppers. Place pan 4 inches or so from the broiler and broil for 5-10 minutes until just warmed through.

The peppers can be stored, covered, at room temperature for a couple of hours or refrigerated for up to 6. Bring them to room temperature before heating. Leftover filling can be used as a topping or spread.

Leftover filling can be used as a spread.

Variations:

2) Tuna with Hummus**
1 5 oz. can of tuna, packed in oil and drained
Grated zest 1/2 lemon
1 Tbsp minced red onion
4 Kalamata olives, pitted and chopped
1/4 cup hummus, homemade or prepared
2 tsp minced parsley
2 tsp lemon juice, or more to taste
2 tsp olive oil, or to taste (more for drizzling)
1/8 tsp ground cumin
1/4 cup chickpeas, chopped
salt, to taste
pinch of cayenne pepper, or more to taste
6-8 piquillo peppers, drained and patted dry

Place tuna and hummus in a bowl and lightly toss with a fork until combined. Do not overmix; you want the tuna to remain somewhat chunky and flaky through the process. Add zest, chickpeas, onion, olives, and parsley. Add lemon juice, olive oil, salt, cumin and cayenne to taste. You want the mixture to be fully moistened with olive oil.

Proceed according to the first recipe.

**Much of this “recipe” is to taste, because the seasoning of you hummus will greatly impact the need for additional lemon, cumim, etc.

3) Tuna Salad with Crème Fraîche
1 5 oz. can of tuna, packed in oil and drained
grated zest 1/2 lemon
1 Tbsp minced red onion
1 1/2 tbsp (about 3) chopped cornichons (gherkins will work in a pinch)
1 tbsp chopped celery
2 tsp minced parsley
3 tbsp crème fraîche, or more to taste
1 tbsp dijon mustard
2 tsp lemon juice, or to taste
2 tsp olive oil, or to taste (more for drizzling)
salt and pepper, to taste
6-8 piquillo peppers, drained and patted dry

Place tuna, crème fraîche, and dijon in a bowl and lightly toss with a fork until combined. Do not overmix; you want the tuna to remain somewhat chunky and flaky through the process. Add zest, onion, cornichons, celery, and parsley. Add lemon juice, olive oil, salt, and pepper to taste. You want the mixture to be fully moistened with olive oil.

9 responses

  1. My most enduring lunch box memory is when my mum put carrots in, complete with their long green stalks as she’d got them from some organic farmers market. I was absolutely mortified and people made jokes about Bugs Bunny for about a week :-)

    These tuna packed piquillos look like just the kind of thing I’d love to take in for my lunch now and I like the hummus idea too – so much fresher than mayonnaise!

  2. My host mom in Spain used to stuff piquillo peppers with freshly boiled shrimp, then use the shrimp shells to make a simple stock and ketchup and heavy cream boiled down to a thick sauce. Then she served it over rice. I’ve made them again and they never turn out quite as well, but it’s still an amazing dish and super simple. I think the quality of the shrimp had something to do with the flavor, though.

  3. I love your description in the beginning. Tuna sandwiches were one of my favorite lunchbox lunches. With mustard, chopped celery, on good old Arnold brand whole wheat bread. So good.

  4. Oh, school lunches. I was always a peanut butter and jelly girl, until my Grandma broke her leg and had to stay with us for 6 weeks. She thought it would be a great idea to make all our sandwiches for the next 4 months and freeze them. I frequently found a half frozen sandwich with a single slice of american cheese and a smear of butter on it in my lunch bag.

    So. This looks like a much better option! :)

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