We were watching Jacques Pépin – one of my most favorite chefs – the other night when he came up with an Orecchiette with Fennel and Tuna that just sounded outrageous. It was just so simple I knew I had to make it.

I have been a fan of his since his first TV show 20-whatever years ago. What I really appreciate about him is his candor in how his cooking has evolved. He talks about how, when he was younger, he would be looking for more ingredients, more garnishes – ways to really take something over the top, his adapting from classic French to production cooking at Howard Johnson’s, and today, it’s about simplicity. Less ingredients, less fuss… letting a few quality ingredients speak for themselves.

That is something I can totally relate to. I did mom-and-pop restaurants, a Navy aircraft carrier, 1000 room hotels, and a 99 bed hospital. Once upon a time, I loved to cook classic French with all the sauces and 527 steps to create a simple dish. Now, it’s more rustic Italian or rustic French. Simple foods that speak volumes simply because of their simplicity. Even my desserts have toned down. I’m much more interested in canning things from the garden – making liqueurs and hot sauce. Not taking any of it seriously.

Tonight’s dinner is a classic example of that concept.

Armed with a bag of organic Orecchiette from Puglia, I set out to do it justice. And while I was at it, I baked a loaf of my favorite bread from Puglia! I had the biga in the ‘fridge…

Orecchiette with Fennel and Tuna

adapted from Jacques Pépin

  • 1/2 lb Orecchiette
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1/2 cup pine nuts
  • 1 medium fennel bulb, thinly sliced
  • 1 bell pepper, cut into thin strips
  • 1/2 cup raisins
  • 3 cloves of garlic,  minced
  • 1 6oz can of tuna (packed in oil, preferred)
  • 1/2 cup fresh parsley, chopped
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmesan
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

Start cooking orecchiette.

In a large skillet, saute onion in olive oil until translucent. Add pine nuts and cook until they begin to lightly brown and are fragrant.

Add sliced fennel and stir or flip pan until fennel is on bottom and pine nuts on top. Add a bit of pasta water. Cover, and cook about 3 minutes.

Uncover and add bell peppers. Cook a few minutes and add the garlic. Continue cooking and add the tuna and raisins.

Cover, again, and cook until vegetables are tender – just a few more minutes.

Drain pasta and stir into fennel. Stir in parsley and cheese.

Check for seasoning and add salt and pepper, as desired.

This really is stellar. I have to admit I was unsure of the canned tuna, but it totally made the dish. We both ate our fill – and then some. And… there’s plenty left over for a couple of lunches.

So thanks, Jacques! I may just have to dust off a couple of your cookbooks and see what else I can come up with! The countdown to retirement is on – and the key word is simplicity!