I have learned so much about cooking from Neil’s family. They’re all amazing cooks who aren’t afraid to try something new. But I’ve really taken a lot of inspiration from the Italian side of his family and their simple and classic dishes.
One of the dishes that Neil was raised on was his dad’s quick and easy tuna pasta. He still makes it now and whenever I have it I always think “how did he make something so simple taste this good?”
His classic version consists basically of long pasta noodles (like spagettini), a can of tuna packed in oil, lots of garlic, olive oil, hot peppers or chili flakes and rapini or broccolini. It was a staple of Neil’s childhood and something that we now crave together and are sometimes lucky enough to have made for us.
My newfangled version came to be when my sister and her boyfriend were coming over for dinner. I knew that my sister hated canned tuna but happened to love fresh seared tuna steak. She has champagne taste, that girl.
So I decided to make a tuna pasta but using fresh tuna instead of canned. I knew I needed a rub of some sort and the first spice that I could think to use was fennel seed. Fennel is a great compliment to fish and I figured it would work well in this dish.
I had never toasted fennel seed myself but tested it out for this recipe and my kitchen was immediately warmed by the scent of toasting fennel. It’s so fragrant and lovely.
The first time I made it, I used a coffee grinder to grind up the spices but we recently got a good mortar and pestle (a kitchen tool that we should have owned ages ago) and I really like how the rub came out using it.
This pasta dish takes everything that’s great about the classic version and brings it up a notch. And it’s really not that hard to make. It’s another one of those meals that looks like it should have been hard, but comes together in a snap. Just get organized, chop and set up all your ingredients beforehand and it’ll be a breeze.
Pasta with Seared Tuna & Fennel Rub
1 box of your favorite long pasta (I used quinoa pasta this time around, a perfect substitute for the real thing)
1-2 tuna steaks (use very fresh, sushi-grade tuna, 1 steak per 2 people)
1 Tbsp whole fennel seeds
1 Tbsp whole black peppercorns (* we used 1 Tbsp because we like spice, but cut it back to ½ Tbsp if you’re more conservative with spice)
1 tsp sea salt
Zest of half a large lemon
1 bunch broccolini or rapini, roughly chopped into thirds
Red chili flakes
1 large clove of garlic, chopped
1 large shallot, chopped
¼ tsp anchovy paste (or more, to taste)
Mix the freshly grated lemon zest with the sea salt and set aside.
In a small pan, toast the fennel seeds and peppercorns on medium low heat for about 3-4 minutes. Be careful not to burn them. Keep them moving in the pan with a wooden spoon.
Remove from heat and put them right into a mortar and pestle or coffee grinder. Grind into a fine powder.
In a bowl, mix the fennel and pepper powder with about half the amount of lemon salt. Set the rest of the lemon salt aside for garnish.
Lightly brush some olive oil onto each side of the tuna steaks and then coat both sides with the fennel, pepper & lemon salt rub.
Lightly oil a large sauté pan and set on medium-high heat. Give it a few minutes to really heat up. Sear tuna steaks for a few minutes on each side, making sure not to overcook. You want a nice crust on the outside and a rare middle. You’re going to add the tuna back into the hot pan later on where it’ll cook a bit more so keep it on the rare side.
When the tuna is done, remove from heat and cut into thin slices or small chunks. Set aside.
Boil your pasta water (with salt!) and get your pasta cooking.
Using the same sauté pan that you used to sear the tuna, add a good amount of olive oil and return to a medium heat. Add in garlic and shallot and sauté for approximately 3 minutes.
Add the broccolini or rapini and sauté for a few minutes. We used broccolini and added about ¼ cup of water into the pan to help it steam and cook but Neil thinks rapini wouldn’t require as much water because it’ll wilt on its own. Use your judgment. You don’t want liquid in the pan, you just want to get the broccolini a bit wet and it’ll absorb the water as it cooks. It also helps loosen the bits on the bottom of the pan.
Add in chili flakes and anchovy paste and mix.
When the pasta is ready, strain and add directly into the pan with the broccolini mixture. Drizzle good quality olive oil overtop and mix well.
Add the tuna into the pan and toss with the pasta.
Transfer to a serving platter and sprinkle the rest of the lemon salt overtop. Serve hot.
You can serve this pasta with some freshly grated parmesan cheese, even though it’s not traditional to put cheese on top of a fish-based pasta. Clearly though, we’re not averse to breaking tradition.
Thanks to my fabulous sister Jayme for being the driving force behind the creation of this recipe!