I’ve gone through so many situations where I’ve been in a limited kitchen space- whether it’s because of kitchen renovation, traveling, or some other reason, I’ve had to learn to adapt with minimal gadgets and even food items. It sounds challenging and frustrating, but actually some of my best recipes have come from cooking in a limited space with limited edibles, because it has forced me to think outside the box of what I dream of cooking and instead cook what is simple, practical and makes good use of what’s on hand. It’s a great skill to develop as a chef.
That’s how this Tuna Pasta recipe came about. I’m always falling back on Sicilian or Italian dishes simply because they are so second nature to me, but also because they call for the ingredients I love most and have on hand most of the time, or at least I know exactly what to do with them when I see them. Tuna Pasta is a very Sicilian dish, most likely created from the coastal villages of Sicily, using whatever was on hand and seasonal, which is why all of the ingredients are Mediterranean. Even if you don’t live in the Mediterranean, things like tuna, olives, and capers are all ingredients that are common pantry condiments, and inexpensive for the most part.
Update: My aunts have told me that this pasta must include ground or whole fennel in it to be authentic, at least in our family repertoire of recipes, so the updated version of this recipe contains ground fennel. You can omit it, if you like, but it really does add a dimension of earthiness that transforms and elevates it. Do try, even if you don’t like or don’t think you like fennel.
Sicilian Tuna Pasta Recipe
If you love southern Mediterranean dishes and make them frequently, you probably have many of the ingredients for this recipe on hand already; if not, they’re easy to get and simple to assemble in this quick and light pasta dish you don’t have to be a fish lover to enjoy. Clickable links will take you to the products I recommend and use myself.
1 pound spaghetti
4 tablespoons really good quality extra virgin olive oil
1/3 cup onion (yellow or purple), finely chopped
2 7-ounce cans tuna packed in oil or water
3 cloves garlic, pounded and minced
1 tablespoon capers
1/2 teaspoon Sicilian sea salt, or to taste
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon ground or whole fennel seeds
1/2 teaspoon dried Sicilian oregano
1/2 teaspoon dried parsley
1 cup fresh basil
Freshly grated Parmesan, to taste
Red pepper flakes, to taste
In a large saute pan, gently heat the olive oil. Add the onion and garlic and saute until translucent, careful not to burn the garlic. Meanwhile, on a separate burner, bring a large stockpot of generously salted water to a boil, then cook the pasta until al dente.
To the saute pan, add both cans of tuna (draining of any water, but adding the oil if preserved in oil). Mix the tuna to combine, then add the red pepper paste. Add the olives and capers.
Add the salt, pepper, fennel, oregano and parsley, and reduce heat to low.
Ladle about 1/2 cup pasta water into the saute pan and mix well. Bring the cooked pasta to the pan and use tongs or two forks to fluff the pasta in the pan so that it does not burn.
Chop the basil finely then add to the pan, combining well. Cook on low, covered, for about an additional 5 minutes.
Bring the dish to a serving bowl. When plating individual plates, add a few sprinkles of red pepper flakes, for an extra kick, as well as another drizzle of olive oil and freshly grated Parmesan on top.