Spaghetti with Tuna and Capers


When I was in college, my friend Todd and I both played the guitar and sang a little (not very well, but we were young and didn’t care). So we decided to try and take our act public. We booked a night at the student-run coffeeshop in the basement of one of the dorms and started practicing. This was the early 90s so our repertoire included songs by Pearl Jam, Lenny Kravitz, and Sting, among others. About a week before our debut, I got a phone call from the coffeeshop. They were going to print flyers to advertise the night around campus and needed to know the name of our band.

We didn’t have one.

In a panic, I told them I’d call them right back. Since this was way before the age of cell phones, I couldn’t reach Todd so I realized I had to take matters into my own hands. I picked up my pocket dictionary, opened it at a random page and pointed to a random word. Then I did it again. I decided that those two words would be our band name.

We were going to be called Mystic Rain. DSC05152

A few hours later I saw Todd at the cafeteria and I told him about the phone call. When I got to the point where I announced our new band name, Todd’s face collapsed. Here was my grunge-loving, REM-worshiping, Nirvana-fanatic friend Todd being told he was now part of a band called Mystic Rain. When I saw his reaction I realized what I’d done. We ran out of there and called the coffeeshop and thankfully, they hadn’t printed the flyers yet. When they finally did, we were billed simply as Todd and Marios.

Randomness isn’t always kind. But for every Mystic Rain disaster there’s a spaghetti with tuna and capers success. I made this dish for the first time many years ago when I was living alone and had to eat something quickly. I picked the random ingredients I could find in my kitchen and came up with this dish. I’ve made it countless times since then, for many friends, all of whom have loved it. It’s simple, but the combination of mustard, tuna, capers, and onions is a real hit. Much to the horror of my Italian friend Simona, for whom I made this once, I like to grate Parmesan cheese on top before eating it. Apparently, Italians never put cheese on seafood pasta, but call me a rebel, I love it.DSC05173

Spaghetti with Tuna and Capers

Makes 2 servings


1/2 lb (250g) spaghetti
1/4 cup olive oil
1 small onion or three large shallots, chopped
2 5oz (142g) cans of tuna (preferably solid white albacore), drained
2 tablespoons wholegrain dijon mustard
2 tablespoons capers in brine, drained
freshly grated Parmesan cheese


Cook spaghetti in a large pot in well-salted water until al dente. Before draining the pasta, reserve 1/4 cup of the pasta water.

Meanwhile, in a large sauté pan, cook the onions or shallots in the 1/4 cup of olive oil over medium high heat until just starting to turn golden brown, about 10 minutes. Add the mustard and stir to combine. Add the tuna (breaking up any big pieces with a spatula), capers, and reserved pasta water and stir to combine. Bring to a low simmer and keep warm.

Drain spaghetti and return to pot. Scrape the tuna and caper mixture over the spaghetti and using kitchen tongs, toss well.

Serve with plenty of freshly grated Parmesan cheese.

Roasted Butternut Squash and Coconut Soup


Sometime in early February, there will come a day when I think “If I have another butternut/acorn/spaghetti/whatever squash soup/gratin/side dish I will barf.” But that day is at least two months away. Right now, it’s the honeymoon period for me and winter squash.


What a perfect food they are. Large and substantial, they keep for long periods of time without the need for refrigeration. They are nutritious and oh so flexible. They can be roasted, boiled, mashed, sliced, blended, you name it. And to top it all, they are sweet, with natural sugars that caramelize under a blast of heat, adding notes of things tropical, far from the cold winters where they reside.


Needless to say, everyone and their mother (literally) has a recipe for butternut squash soup. But I wanted to create my own. I chose to pair butternut squash, roasted at high heat to get some nice caramelization, with coconut, admittedly a classic pairing. I kept things simple and used a selection of mostly Thai flavors. The soup lets the squash shine but it with the unmistakable background of lime and ginger and fish sauce.

The soup is lovely as is, but I’ve found that it really comes alive with a few drops of hot sauce sprinkled on top. I’ve been using Louisiana hot sauce with great success. To make it more substantial, you can add some sautéed shrimp like in the photos here. Or, as I did last weekend, place a small mount of Trader Joe’s Dried Kimchi in the center of each bowl of soup. The combination was phenomenal.


Roasted Butternut Squash and Coconut Soup

Serves 3-4 as appetizer


1 1/2 lbs (650 gr) peeled and seeded butternut squash, cut into 1 inch cubes (about 4 cups)
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 cup coconut milk
1 cup chicken or vegetable stock
1 1/2 teaspoons lime juice
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1 1/2 teaspoon fish sauce
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 red thai chili pepper, roughly chopped (optional)
Hot sauce or chili oil (optional)


Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Place butternut squash cubes in large bowl, add oil, and mix well with your hands. Place on large baking sheet and roast in the oven for about 40 minutes, turning once or twice, until the edges of the squash cubes begging to turn brown. Remove from the oven and let cool for about 10 minutes.

Place roasted butternut squash and the remaining ingredients (except the chili oil or hot sauce) in a blender and blend until smooth. Pour in a medium pot and heat over medium heat. If the soup is too thick, add some more stock, one tablespoon at a time to thin it out.

Serve hot with some hot sauce or chili oil if you like.

Spaghetti with Garlic, Lemon, and Parsley

The day after our wedding, I began to lose my ability to smell and taste. It happened gradually but quickly. I first noticed that I was having a hard time smelling some of the more nuanced notes in food. At the same time, I started experiencing a phantom smell and taste. It had a strange herbal, slightly toasted quality and I began to smell it in everything. While in Iceland, everything had this strange taste. At first I thought it was a local herb they used in most of their food. We even asked a waitress about it but she had no idea what we were talking about. Steve and I started joking that it was the taste of lamb that was permeating everything, since lamb was so common in Iceland.


By the end of the trip, things had gotten worse. When we got back to New York I pretty much lost the ability to smell anything but the strongest odors and I could only taste strong and basic flavors: sweet, salty, bitter. Some things, like coffee, now tasted and smelled exclusively of that weird toasted herbal phantom flavor. It was obvious something was wrong.

There are times when not being able to smell can be a blessing (yes, I am talking about you, mister I-don’t-wear-deodorant-at-the-gym). But those times are very few. Not being able to taste or smell food was devastating for me. I was trying not to panic but it was hard not to. Beyond the loss of pleasure from food, I started to feel a strange kind of isolation from everything around me. Like I was living in a plastic bubble. I realized how  much our sense of smell helps connect us to our surroundings, much like our sight and hearing.


A quick visit to Dr. Google was not very reassuring (is it ever?). There were lots of Greek words, like anosmia (complete loss of smell), parosmia (inability to correctly smell), and dysgeusia (distortion of sense of taste). The probable causes of my symptoms were many and some were very scary.

So, last Wednesday I went to a real doctor, an ENT. Within 5 minutes I was diagnosed. I had a “giant” (his word) polyp in each nostril which was blocking my olfactory nerves. Fortunately, nothing too serious. He recommended an aggressive treatment with Prednisone and antibiotics for a month, and Flonase “for the rest of my life” (his words again). Surgery would be the next step, if the polyps didn’t respond to the meds.


A quick visit to Dr. Google again (I know, I can’t resist) revealed that nasal polyps are common for people with chronic sinusitis and allergies (that would be me) and that they are especially common among men over the age of 40 (damn you 40s! You are so not the new 30s, no matter what anyone says).

I started the meds on Thursday morning. By Friday night, I was feeling much better. My sinuses were no longer clogged up and I was starting to smell and taste things again. Both Steve and I were immensely relieved. This spaghetti with garlic, lemon, and parsley is what I made and it was the first thing I was able to taste correctly in about 3 weeks. I’ve always liked this dish but on that night I thought it was the best thing I had ever tasted.


Spaghetti with Garlic, Lemon, and Parsley
Slightly adapted from The Gourmet Cookbook: More than 1000 recipes

Serves 4

1 lb spaghetti
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
4 large garlic cloves, minced
1/2-3/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes (optional)
Finely grated zest of 2 lemons
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

Cook pasta in a 6-8 quart pot of boiling salted water (1 T salt for every 4 quarts water) until al dente. Reserve 1 cup cooking water and drain pasta.

Meanwhile, heat oil in a 12 inch heavy skillet over moderately low heat. Add garlic and red pepper flakes and cook, stirring, until garlic is golden, about 3 minutes.

Stir lemon zest into skillet, then stir in juice, salt, pepper, and 1/2 cup reserved cooking water and bring to a simmer.

Toss pasta in sauce with parsley. Add more cooking water if pasta seems dry.

Serve with freshly grated parmesan cheese on top.