Zuni's Pasta with Preserved Tuna

February  4, 2014
9 Ratings
Photo by James Ransom
Author Notes

Adapted from The Zuni Cafe Cookbook (which can never be praised enough). Judy Rodgers created the recipe as a way of saving leftover tuna on Sunday. I assume you do not have that problem, but if you do, take the time to preserve the tuna yourself. It isn't hard and it is wonderful; you can find Rodgers's method in the Zuni cookbook. What's below is her adaptation for canned tuna -- good olive oil-packed tuna. As for the pasta: Rodgers recommends penne, ziti, or ditali, but I've made this with spaghetti and perciatelli and I was pleased. Also, while we're being heretical, have I substituted walnuts for the pine nuts before? I have. —Nicholas Day

Watch This Recipe
Zuni's Pasta with Preserved Tuna
  • Prep time 20 minutes
  • Cook time 25 minutes
  • Serves 4
  • 1 pound pasta (see above)
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon lemon zest, in thin strips
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1/2 teaspoon chili flakes (optional, for the sake of small humans)
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper (optional, for the same reason)
  • 2 garlic cloves, slivered
  • 1/4 teaspoon fennel seeds
  • 1/4 cup pine nuts
  • 2 tablespoons capers, coarsely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon preserved lemon, rinsed and chopped (optional)
  • 12 ounces olive oil-packed tuna (slightly more or less is fine)
In This Recipe
  1. Set a large pot of salted water to boil.
  2. In a small skillet, gently warm the olive oil with the lemon zest, bay leaf, chili flakes and black pepper (if using), garlic, and fennel seeds. Cook for about 15 minutes over very low heat to let the flavors infuse the oil. Then add the canned tuna, pine nuts, capers, and preserved lemon (if using). Gently nudge apart the tuna and let it warm up but not cook.
  3. Meanwhile, once the water boils, cook the pasta until al dente. Drain well and toss in a serving bowl with the tuna mixture. Serve.

See what other Food52ers are saying.

  • velvet.onion
  • HalfPint
  • ellemmbee
  • Gwenhwyfar
  • candace
I'm the author of a book on the science and history of infancy, Baby Meets World. My website is nicholasday.net; I tweet over at @nicksday. And if you need any good playdoh recipes, just ask.

60 Reviews

Heidi October 3, 2020
So good. I added spinach and
Roasted Panko. Perfect additions.
velvet.onion September 8, 2020
Oh my goodness. So simple. So good. I've used the base of oil, garlic, fennel, bay, lemon zest for all manner of pasta dishes (sweet red peppers and onions for a start). I go back to this time and time again. Thank you!
Peter D. May 27, 2020
This was an excellent dish. I looked at this dish and a recipe from the cookbook Urban Italian (which was more salad-like). I opted for this version but threw in a cup of halved cherry tomatoes for more brightness. Skipped the preserved lemon but added a small handful of chopped Italian parsley at the end. I used my A's Do Mar tuna (from Amazon) - it's super high quality but the price has doubled since my order in January.
HalfPint April 8, 2020
Just made this with some short pasta I got from Trader Joe's. I mostly followed the recipe including the preserved lemon (which I just made last week) but excluded the pine nuts since I didn't have any. It's really good, even my 5 year old liked it and she's such a picky eater right now. Use a high quality tuna here. Mine was a souvenir gift from my brother's last vacation in Portugal.
HalfPint April 8, 2020
Just made this with some short pasta I got from Trader Joe's. I mostly followed the recipe including the preserved lemon (which I just made last week) but excluded the pine nuts since I didn't have any. It's really good, even my 5 year old liked it and she's such a picky eater right now. Use a high quality tuna here. Mine was a souvenir gift from my brother's last vacation in Portugal.
Watchman66 February 28, 2020
This was damn good. I made with spaghetti, it was all I had. Also I couldn’t find preserved lemons (Amazon, you’ll be hearing from me). I halved the recipe as it was just for me and I still have a late night snack left. Delicious.
Andrea M. March 1, 2020
I love this recipe too! Such a wonderful pantry meal! Though I recommend making preserved lemons. It’s easy and so much cheaper. And they’ll open up the doors to the most wonderful Middle Eastern recipes.
Ellie September 30, 2019
I was so excited to make this—the flavors looked amazing! Unfortunately, I used angel hair pasta (my favorite) and it was really dry—so dry that I even wondered whether I had used half the recommended amount of oil by mistake. The flavors were totally lost. Can anyone shed some light on what might have happened?
Andrea M. March 1, 2020
I think that there is an ideal type of pasta for every dish. For this one, it’s penne. I think the surface area of angel hair would be too high. You’d need a lot of oil to match that!
Nancy September 11, 2019
I wonder if someone can give me more tips on the preserved lemons. I have never bought them. Does anyone have a favorite store brand in the US? Someone mentioned some are sweet, and some are not? So I am confused, but would love to try them. I can't wait to try this recipe!
Rhonda35 September 13, 2019
I buy my preserved lemons at Whole Foods or make my own, following the recipe in Amanda Hesser's book, The Cook and The Gardener. You can also order them from Amazon. For this recipe, you want to use the salt-brine preserved version, not sweet.
ellemmbee September 9, 2019
The tuna in the video appears to be Tonnino which comes in various flavors and is available nowadays at Whole Foods and other grocery store. I’d use some of whatever oil is in the jar for some of the oil in the recipe.
Paula A. October 3, 2018
Do I drain the oil off the tuna, or toss it all in, oil and all?
Roy P. August 29, 2019
I wouldn't drain the tuna. It's the same oil in the tuna but with a lot more flavor.
Andrea M. July 18, 2018
This is my go to pantry meal. Winter or summer. Often with some broccoli blanched in the last minute of pasta cooking. Love it.
Gwenhwyfar May 23, 2018
I used the infused oil part of this to inform a variation I made last night with a tin of mackerel and fresh pappardelle, with chopped green olives and balsamic-marinated baby cippollinis in place of the capers (which I don't like). My preserved lemons had turned, so I used the zest of a large lemon and squeezed fresh lemon on top when serving. Incredible flavors! The spices and warming steps are going into my own recipe now - thanks! :)
ghainskom September 1, 2017
I skipped the bay leaf and lemon zest for lack of it, as well as the chili and pepper for the sake of the kids, and subbed the pine with hazelnuts. Still a winner.
ghainskom September 1, 2017
My 5yo when I told her we were having pasta and tuna: "I don't like tuna". My 5yo after she'd had a bite, because I always insist they give each dish a chance before dismissing it: "I still don't like tuna. But you can put some of that in my plate". Made an effort to not lol, she could've changed her mind... :)
Dan May 22, 2015
I used whole wheat shells and three cans of tuna in olive oil (15 oz. total). The tuna was three different brands: the Trader Joe's looked the best and the Cento looked the worst. I had barely enough lemon zest, but I did have preserved lemons, so that worked out. It was delicious both warm, and later that evening (he said guiltily) cold. I can't wait to make it for guests!
candace May 19, 2015
This was so damn good. The flavor profile is so much more complex than I imagined. I made a few small changes: no black pepper, I added 3 diced black kalamata olives, I used chopped caper berries because I had no capers, and subbed walnuts for the pine nuts. Really lovely. I thought it had an almost traditional Chinese flavor - I'm guessing because of the fennel seeds.
Tonya April 15, 2015
This was excellent, everything went so well together.
I did add an anchovy as somebody suggested and used less oil. Also I didn't have pine nuts, so I used sliced almonds. It was delicious, will definitely make it again.
Can I. October 16, 2014
Holy smokes, this is good. A perfect weeknight meal, plus tomorrow's lunch. I didn't change a thing.
chelsy October 8, 2014
this dish sounds great, however i do not have tuna (and don't really like it) i have canned salmon. would that work in place of tuna?
Hannah M. June 13, 2014
This was brilliant. Honestly. I didn't add anything (which I ALWAYS do). This was so incredibly delicious as is. Having said that, melting an anchovy or two in the oil would probably add EVEN more of an umami element. Not that this dish really needs it, but still.
While I didn't add anthing, I made some slight changes in quantity:
1. I upped the fennel seeds a bit to somewhere between half a teaspoon and a whole one (I don't really measure spices, just shake the jar until it looks like an amount I'm happy with. This tends to be rather a lot).
2. I used the rind of half a preserved lemon (which was probably more than a tablespoon).
3. I used 1/3 cup oil. Cause we all love olive oil but... I dunno. Just letting the oil-weary know that it was delicious with less oil, too.
THANK YOU for this recipe.