Saturday, April 28, 2012

Orecchiette with Fennel and Tuna

Comfort foods - everyone has something (or several things) that fit into this category. In some cases, perhaps it's a dish that evokes some fleeting memory, growing ever distant. Or perhaps it's a recipe passed down from generation to generation, providing an indelible link from past to present.

Or maybe it's simply an dish that you've grown to love over several years. For me, this is that dish. It's inspired by pasta con le sarde, which traditionally uses fresh sardines, pine nuts, fennel, olive oil, and breadcrumbs. Well, this is fairly similar. It consists of canned tuna, pine nuts, bell peppers, fennel, onion, and raisins. And it's fantastic, trust me. Like many things I cook, the recipe comes courtesy of Jacques Pépin, so you know it's legit. 

Why comfort dishes right now? For me, cooking itself is a kind of therapy. It's a break from studying and class. And it's something that produces immediate, tangible results. That's something you don't see every day in school. The results here? It's hard to describe. The way the flavors meld makes the dish better than the sum of its parts, which are admittedly nothing out of the ordinary. The raisins provide a hint of sweetness. The pine nuts add nuttiness and crunch. And the fennel and fish make the perfect pair. It just all works

Plus, this time of the year marks the crush of final exam prep. Dishes that make enough food (like this) to feed six or provide leftovers are much appreciated. And hey, it's orecchiette pasta! It's trending as the go-to pasta shape for all things toothsome and tempting.

Let's give it a go! 

Orecchiette with Fennel and Tuna

The fresh ingredients that you need are generally available at any market. Onion, fennel, bell peppers, and garlic. The bell peppers can be any color. Red adds a nice splash of color, but I've used green countless times. Often when you buy fennel bulbs, the fronds have been removed. That's really not a problem. The fronds make a nice garnish if you have them. 

I like to get everyone ready to go before starting. And everything with this dish comes together quickly, so it's best to do the prep work before starting to cook. 

First, take your onion and chop it into a rough dice. Set aside. Then, take the bell peppers and chop them into roughly pinky-sized pieces. Meanwhile, chop or press the garlic gloves. Set that aside. 

Now, take the fennel bulb. Cut off the very bottom of the fennel bulb with a large, sharp knife. You just need to take off the tough bottom.

Run the fennel bulb against a mandolin. You want to shave pretty thin here. Alternatively, you can use a knife, but I've found it's difficult (and dangerous!) to try to cut thin pieces with a knife. Mandolins are relatively cheap. This Swissmar Borner ran about $30 when I got it. Remember, be careful when using a mandolin. It's very sharp and accidents can happen. 

Set the fennel aside with the onion and bell peppers.

Now, let's turn to the tuna for a moment. The original recipe called for tuna packed in water. That's a mistake. I'm firmly in the same camp as Juila Child: tuna packed in oil retains its flavor and texture better than tuna packed in water. 

Here, I used yellowfin tuna packed in olive oil. I usually buy Trader Joe's Yellowfin Tuna in Oil, or Genova Tonno (available in most major supermarkets). Why did I use Tonnino? My best option for shopping is Whole Foods and they apparently have to sell tuna in expensive jars. Because Whole Foods. 

Drain the tuna, but don't try to get rid of all of the oil. 

Time to cook!

Right before you're about to start, bring a large pot of salted boiling water to a boil over high heat. You want to get this going concurrently with the fennel-tuna mixture preparation because you'll be taking starchy pasta water and adding it to the fennel-tuna mixture.

As always, you want the water to taste like the sea. Be generous with your seasoning.

Put the orecchiette in the salted, boiling water. Follow package directions regarding cooking time. As with any dish where you are adding cooked pasta to something else that is warm, cook the pasta a little less because it will continue to 'cook' in the hot skillet. 

If you don't have orecchiette or you prefer another pasta shape, by all means feel free to use it. I've done this with bow-tie pasta and penne rigate. You really can't go wrong.

Now, heat 1-2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium-high heat in a large, wide skillet.

Add the onion once the oil has heated. Then, add the pine nuts. A small handful is all that's needed. 

Give it all a quick stir so everything's evenly coated with oil. Continue to stir frequently so that the pine nuts color evenly.

After about 4-6 minutes, the pine nuts should be starting to brown. Once they begin to color, add the shaved fennel bulb. 

Now, using tongs or flipping it chef-style, get the pine nuts off the bottom of the pan so that the fennel is on the bottom. It doesn't have to be perfect by any means. 

Ladle 1/2 cup of the cooking pasta water into the pan. Cover and cook, still over medium-high heat. 

If at any point the mixture starts to become dry, add some more pasta water. 

After about 2 minutes, add the chopped fresh bell pepper. 


Cover and cook for another minute or so.

Now add the chopped or pressed garlic.

Stir very well again. 

Cover and cook for another minute. 

Now, add the 1/3 cup of raisins. Again, like the pine nuts, a small handful will suffice. 

Then, add the tuna and any accumulated liquids. Salt and pepper the tuna. 

Give it a good stir again, trying to make sure the tuna is well mixed. If the mixture is dry, remember you can add more pasta water. 

Cover and continue to cook. It's hard to give a good time estimate here, because there are so many variables that affect cooking time. After 2-3 minutes, begin to test the bell peppers. Once they are cooked (i.e., crisp-tender), everything is done. 

If the pasta is still cooking, turn the heat off on the tuna and fennel and wait for the pasta. If the pasta finishes before the tuna and fennel, drain the pasta and leave it in the colander, preferably over the pasta pot so that it remains warm.

Note, before draining the pasta, you want to reserve about 1 cup of pasta cooking water. The water is seasoned and starchy. You will use some of it later to complete the sauce. 

Once the fennel and tuna are done, and the pasta is cooked, add the pasta to the skillet. On top of that, add the 1/3 cup of Parmesan or Pecorino and chopped parsley.

Mix everything really well. Add some of the reserved pasta water. If the mixture seems dry, continue to add more pasta water. Continue to mix, creating a silky sauce. 

Done! Serve immediately and if you have them, place fennel fronds on top for garnish. Serve with more cheese and fresh pepper at the table.

INGREDIENTS (Serves 4-6)

1 lb Orecchiette or similar type pasta

1 large onion, chopped
1/3 cup pine nuts
1 medium-to-large fennel bulb, shaved thin with mandolin, fronds reserved for garnish
2 bell peppers, any color, chopped into pinky-sized pieces
1/3 cup golden raisins
2-3 cloves of garlic, chopped or minced
2 6oz cans of tuna packed in oil (e.g., Genova Tonno), drained lightly

Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
1/2 cup fresh parsley, chopped
1/3 cup Parmesan or Pecorino cheese, with more reserved for the table.

Courtesy of Jacques Pépin's More Fast Food My Way - Episode 224, Pop Over Anytime.

Many thanks for my brother, Andrew, who wrote the instructions for this recipe. I've been doing it through mimicry from the episode and had never bothered to write it down. 


  1. This is my favorite dish, and the reason I love fennel! When you first described the recipe, I admit I braced myself for an awkward semi-sweet licorice pasta dish, but was amazed by a complex harmony of flavors and textures. It has the kind of surprise that you look for in a fine restaurant, but the pasta, cheese, and easy prep maintain that homey touch that you expect from comfort food. That was almost 3 years ago– now it's what I request for my birthday, what we make when we're stressed with classes, and always a welcome touch of gourmet.

  2. Thanks for documenting this recipe. We saw it on Jacques Pepin and couldn't find it written down anywhere on the web, except your blog. It was easy, yummy and different than our standard fare.

  3. Hi Amy!

    Thanks so much for taking the time to comment! I'm sorry it took me so long to respond. I had to disconnect from blogging during my final exam period.

    I'm glad you enjoyed the dish. It's one of my favorite Pepin recipes! I'm something of a fan of his, so there will be quite a number of his recipes featured here in the future.

  4. This looks wonderful! Thank you for sharing.

  5. Last night I had my first serving of orecchiette with fennel and tuna. The raisins had plumped up in the cooking process so that when I bit down on them they burst with the sweet natural flavors of a grape married with the savory nectar of sauteed onions and salty pasta liquid. The orecchiette pasta had formed little stacks, doubling my al dente experience. The fennel (if it can still be called fennel) is soft and sweet, drenched in the flavors of sauteed onions, which pairs well with the crunch from the red pepper. The parsley and pine nuts tie it all together for a refreshing and light nutty finish. It's hard not to go back for seconds or fourths. But it's that first bite, that elusive dragon, that I will chase for years to come.

  6. Hi Matt! I don't know if you still come around this blog, but in case. I just tried the recipe today, it was delicious! I didn't have raisins though so I put dried figs instead. It might be sweeter than the raisins, I'm not sure, but it worked. Also, I thought to myself: this could make a good risotto, right? By basically replacing the pasta with rice. Anyway, I think I'll try some more of your recipes anyway. They look fairly easy to make and all very good! Again thanks.