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Spaghetti with Tuna, Capers, Lemon, Chili

June 29, 2011

If you are ever quizzed at gunpoint about my palate, and you have to quickly come up with one fact, this should save you:

I love contrasts.

This recipe, with many complementary and contrasting ingredients, comes from a Melissa Clark book called Chef Interrupted. (Melissa Clark is the person who wrote my favorite ever shrimp recipe, so now I will follow her around like a puppy.)

The concept of that book is that Melissa Clark works with chefs to translate delicious restaurant recipes into delicious home recipes. And this recipe was originally from Zuni Cafe in San Francisco.

I chose to make it because it triggered a memory of a dish I was once served in a garden on the island of Elba, in Italy: tuna and black olives in a tomato sauce stirred through a tube-shaped pasta, a nice play on bitter and acidic against a backdrop of pasta that was almost creamy.

Those Italians on their flower-filled islands: they never fail to open our eyes to the power of a few simple ingredients lovingly mixed together, do they? It is like they are one-trick ponies, the delicious delicious Italians.

This has lemon rather than tomato brightening the tuna. Like most people of the post-Jeffersonian era, I am a fan of tomatoes, however: I live and die for lemons.

I also used capers rather than olives, which I didn’t have. The lemon zest, tuna, and olive oil itself added enough of a bitter undertone, and capers are fun little blasts of vinegary salt. Finding one in your bite is, dare I say, a similar pleasure to that of finding an Easter egg as a child. And the coarse sea salt was the piece de resistance. (Recently I’ve become aware of a bit of a harsh chemical taste in kosher salt.)

The recipe is rather like a game of telephone, because I didn’t do everything Melissa said to do, and Melissa didn’t do everything chef Judy Rodgers said to do, I’ll bet.

Never mind: it’s delicious, and even people who are two love it and want to eat the whole of their father’s portion, after they pick off the actual fish chunks.

I’m copying the recipe, and adding my own editorial comment beneath.

Spaghetti with Preserved Tuna, Lemon Zest, Hot Pepper, Capers, and Olives


1. In a large skillet over medium heat, warm the oil. Add the lemon zest, red pepper flakes, 1/2 t black pepper, fennel seeds, garlic, and bay leaf. Reduce the heat the low and let the flavors infuse for 15 minutes. Stire in the olives and capers.

2. Remove the tuna from its oil (do not discard the oil) and add the tuna to the skillet. Break the tuna chunks up into smaller pieces with a wooden spoon. Add about six tablesppons of the preserving oil and the preserved lemon or limequat, if using. Raise the heat to medium-low and warm enough.

3. To prepare the pasta, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Drop in the pasta, stir once, and cook until al dente. Drain the pasta and add it to the warm tuna mixture. Remove the bay leaf. Add the basil, lemon juice, and more of the preserving oil to taste, and adjust the salt and pepper.

[Be sure to start the water before step 3. You can: prep; start water; and cook the “sauce” while the water is coming to a boil, and the pasta is boiling. For the record, I’m sure it would have been better had I used preserved lemon, and fennel, and all of the stuff I realized I didn’t have: I made it without them. If I had used preserved lemons, it would have been divine. And I wanted to modify “divine” in that last sentence, but divine needs no polish. Like this dish needs no fennel or preserved lemons.]


3/4 C extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 T fresh grated lemon zest

1/2 t crushed red pepper flakes, or to taste

1/2 t fresh ground black pepper, plus more to taste

1/8 t fennel seeds

1 garlic clove, slivered

1 bay leaf

1 T chopped picholine or other green olives

1 T capers, drained

10 oz. preserved tuna (Clark provides a recipe, or you can use good canned or jarred Italian in packed in olive oil)

1 T chopped preserved lemon or limequat, optional

1 lb dried spaghetti

1/4 C shredded fresh basil

2 T fresh squeezed lemon juice (from 1 lemon)

Coarse sea salt or kosher salt

2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 6, 2011 1:18 am

    ahhhhhh, cooked this up backpacking out in the backcountry of opal creek oregon. So yummy. Not your typical trail fare! A bit of pre-wilderness prep but well worth it. Happy the garlic and tuna didn’t attract bears and their other forest friends like sasquatch. Maybe they just don’t have good taste 😉 Love that the directions are clearly marked “procedure” in big fontyness.

    • July 6, 2011 11:43 am

      Wow, I am totally impressed! Makes sense, though. I always knew that Oregon was perfect and if you can eat like that when camping, it just reinforces it. My friend’s dad is famous for kooky camp meals like slim Jim soup. Are you a camping gourmet? Love it!

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