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.

Seared Tuna with Olive Tapenade Relish

One of the first school field trips I remember taking as a kid was to an eleotrivio, a traditional olive oil mill. I have vague visual memories – a dark room, the circular fiber disks that are filled with olive paste and pressed to extract oil, the round millstones in the grinder – but it’s the memory of how it smelled that has stuck with me through the decades. A wet and grassy smell, pungent from the slight fermentation of the leftover olive paste, it was exciting and a little overwhelming for my young olfactory nerves. Like in a duckling seeing its mother for the first time, the smell imprinted itself in my brain, so that every time I open a jar of olive tapenade I flash back to that dark and musty eleotrivio of my younger years.


The recipe I have here calls for tuna steaks but you can substitute any fish steak (sword fish would work well, or even salmon). The real star is the olive tapenade relish. It’s thick, earthy, and a little sour, with a healthy kick from the shallots. You’ll find yourself thinking of the tuna as the supporting player, the implement you use to get the relish in your mouth, instead of the main player in the dish.


You can make more than you need and keep it covered in the fridge for several days. It’s another one of those sauces in my cooking arsenal that I can whip up quickly and dress up a weeknight meal into something special. And as an added benefit, just opening the jar of tapenade takes me on a mini time-travel trip to a time when the simple smell of crushed olives was a discovery to be cherished for years to come.


Seared Tuna with Olive Tapenade Relish – Adapted from

1/2 cup olive tapenade or olive spread (I use black olive tapenade but you can use the green kind or a mix)
1/2 cup finely chopped shallots (you can also use red onion or 1/3 cup white onion)
5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup white balsamic vinegar (or red balsamic vinegar if you can’t find white)
2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest (from organic, unsprayed lemons; preferably grated on a Microplane zester)
salt and pepper
4 6-ounce tuna steaks (3/4 to 1 inch thick)

Mix tapenade, shallots, oil, vinegar, and lemon zest in medium bowl; season with salt and pepper.

Brush tuna on both sides with a little olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Heat a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add tuna steaks and cook to desired doneness, 1-2 minutes per side for medium-rare.

Serve tuna steaks with relish on top. Accompany with a simple salad or roasted vegetables.