Even before I worked at Cook's Illustrated, one of my all-time favorite recipes from the magazine was a simple pasta dish ostensibly invented to make use of ingredients you might already have in your pantry, for a quick, effortless weeknight dinner.
Short pasta (fusilli/rotini, gemelli or penne work well) is tossed in a simple sauce of tuna, capers, garlic, lemon zest, white wine, and parsley, with a touch of red chile pepper for zest and butter for richness. The result is greater than the sum of its parts: a truly delicious dish that tastes so complex and refined that it's difficult to believe how easy it is to make.
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 3 cloves garlic, peeled and finely minced (about 3 teaspoons)
- 1/2 teaspoon dried red chile pepper flakes or 1 small, dried red peperoncino, crushed with your fingers
- 3 tablespoons salt-packed capers, soaked in water for 15-20 minutes and then rinsed thoroughly a few times to remove excess salt
- 1/2 cup dry white wine
- 12 ounces (two 6-ounce cans) of extra-virgin-olive-oil-packed yellowfin tuna, drained
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves
- 1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, broken up into several pieces
- fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- 1 pound short pasta (fusilli or penne, cooked to al dente and drained, 1/4 cup of the cooking water reserved)
- Heat the oil, 1 1/2 teaspoons of the garlic, red chile pepper and capers in a medium skillet over medium heat until fragrant (but not browned), about 1 minute.
- Add the wine and bring to a bare simmer; simmer for 1 minute.
- Add the tuna and salt to taste and saute over low heat for 1 minute.
- Toss the tuna-caper mixture with the remaining 1 1/2 teaspoons of raw minced garlic, parsley, lemon zest, butter, cooked pasta and as much of the reserved pasta cooking water as needed to form a creamy sauce that coats the pasta. Season with abundant freshly ground black pepper and serve immediately.
You can serve it with the rest of the bottle of white wine that you used in cooking.
When I first moved to Italy and offered to make pasta for dinner one night for my housemate and some of his friends, the laughter was loud and sustained. "The Californian is going to make pasta! What are you going to do, put ketchup on spaghetti?!" The fact that I have indeed put ketchup on pasta notwithstanding, I found their mockery insulting and took it as a challenge.
But what could I make to impress Italians? Rather than go for an Italian classic, I chose to make this dish, not too far from Italian tastes, with ingredients that would be easy to find in Italy (and at really high quality too) yet with an unusual twist they'd be unlikely to have encountered before. It worked: Everyone ate their words together with the pasta, and one guest was so impressed that she asked for the recipe and wrote to me years later to tell me that she still makes it often, receiving compliments every time! That's why I call it "Winning Pasta."
I've made several important tweaks to the original recipe: rather than using mushy and flavorless water-packed white tuna, I only use extra-virgin-olive-oil-packed yellowfin tuna, and I use salt-packed capers, which have a far superior texture, firm to the bite, and retain their fragrant caper flavor, rather than vinegar-packed, which tend to get mushy and taste of nothing but vinegar. I also use about half of the garlic than called for in the original recipe (Italians, in general, tend to use far less garlic than Italian-Americans, though the further south you go in Italy, the more heavy-handed the garlic use.)
If you think that you hate canned tuna and haven't yet tried any olive-oil packed Italian brands, which are far superior to the insipid, water-packed brands sold in the U.S. and elsewhere, I urge you to give it a try and reconsider -- it's really an entirely different thing -- as Italians would say, "Non c'è paragone" -- there's no comparison.