Synergy Pasta (Penne with Lemon, Olives and Tuna)

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Synergy Pasta. A simple meal I often make where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.


Penne, “good” tuna, lemons, olives and capers. That’s about it. But it’s the technique that makes it taste more than a pantry, thrown together meal.

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Lightly pan-frying lemon slices creates a complex bitter note. And, using and reducing pasta water to create a sauce harmonizes all of the other ingredients and allows the pasta to absorb the flavors.


Start to finish, you can have this on your table in under 25 minutes. This is a pasta I often turn to for a weeknight meal or a great weekend lunch. So much flavor for so few ingredients and so little time. That’s why it’s “synergy pasta!”



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Penne Pasta with Lemon, Olives and Tuna

  • Servings: 2, scales well
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Print


  • 1 1/3 cups dried penne pasta (2/3 cup per person)
  • 1/3 cup pitted olives, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon capers, rinsed and drained
  • 1 large lemon
  • 7 ounces tuna filets in olive oil, drained
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon kosher (not table) salt for pasta water, plus 1/2 teaspoon for sauce
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1/8 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1/2 teaspoon finely chopped rosemary (optional)


  1. Bring 3 quarts of water and 1 tablespoon of kosher salt to a rapid boil
  2. While water is heating, thinly slice half a large lemon, (about five slices) de-seed, and reserve the remaining portion
  3. Heat a large saucepan with 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Once hot, add the lemon slices. Flip when the rind looks translucent and the lemon slices have browned. Brown both sides, remove and roughly chop
  4. While lemons are sautéing, rinse, drain and roughly chop capers
  5. De-pit, and roughly chop olives (I use whatever olives I happen to have. Today it’s Kalamata)
  6. Add lemon, capers, olives, salt, black pepper and red pepper flakes to pan on medium heat
  7. Under cook pasta by 1-2 minutes. It should be extra al dente. Reserve the pasta water
  8. Transfer the al dente pasta to the sauté pan using a spider or slotted spoon. Stir to mix with the lemons, olives and capers
  9. Add 1/2 cup pasta water to the pan. Stir. Bring to a simmer, let the liquid reduce by half, and then add another 1/2 cup of the pasta water. This accomplishes three things:
    • First, the pasta water finishes cooking the pasta.
    • Secondly, this allows the pasta to absorb the flavors of the lemons, olives and capers.
    • And finally, the starch in the pasta water helps build a sauce
  10. Reduce the liquid by nearly all, but do not let the pasta dry out
  11. Add the tuna at the last minute just to warm it through
  12. Divide the pasta into two bowls and squeeze some fresh lemon juice over each bowl, and a fresh drizzle of olive oil if you’d like.

Author: gregnelsoncooks

Visit weekly for original and adapted recipes as well as cooking tips to make your kitchen life easier — and more delicious! I’ll include simple, straight forward instructions along with recipes that are truly worth your time making. And, recipes that elevate the familiar and introduce you to the new and unexpected.

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