Bucatini pasta with lemon, tuna and capers is a simple dish to prepare for Mom on Mother’s Day.

Bill Hogan | Chicago Tribune

I work full time in the food business. For more than three decades, my days have centered on food — from wrangling recipes and groceries, to ingredient research, to tastings in a test kitchen. So when the kids ask what I want for Mother’s Day, the answer is simple: Cook for me.

Nothing exotic, I tell them, and if you search the pantry and freezer, you won’t even need to shop. Start with pasta. Skip the bottled red sauce (reminds me too much of my work). Keep things healthy. Use your imagination.

Over the years, my now-grown children have created quite an array of simple pasta meals concocted from ingredients on hand. When the herb garden flourishes, things taste even brighter.

First, I suggest from the sidelines, pair the pasta shape to complement the sauce/toppings. Pick hollow pasta such as rigatoni for saucy toppings such as cream sauces or marinara. Choose flat pastas, such as linguine and fettuccine, for sauteed or chunky toppings such as diced vegetables, shredded meats or fish. Coordinate the size of the pasta with the size of the add-ins; tiny orzo goes well with cooked peas, and penne pairs nicely with broccoli florets.

We usually have some type of fully cooked protein in the fridge or freezer that lends itself to a speedy meal. These treasures, such as fully cooked sausages, require little more than heating and cutting to mix with pasta. A piece of cooked pot roast or pork shoulder can be shredded and mixed with marinara sauce for a very simple rendition of a homemade ragu we enjoy over wide egg noodles.

Frozen cooked shrimp proves easy for all: An overnight thaw in the fridge takes no skill. To serve, I gently advise a saute of sweet onion and fresh garlic, before wilting in fresh baby spinach, the thawed shrimp and cooked “fancy” pasta (such as rotini or orecchiette).

Here are two of our family’s go-to pasta recipes.


Prep: 20 minutes

Soak: 10 to 15 minutes

Cook: 20 minutes

Makes: 4 servings

We like to use sun-dried tomato and basil-flavored chicken sausage or thinly sliced fully cooked Polish sausage. Be sure to thoroughly rinse the leek; it often harbors dirt between its layers.

1 ounce dried mushrooms (such as a medley of porcini, shiitake, black, oyster)

¼ cup olive oil

1 large leek or red onion, trimmed, halved, thinly sliced

4 links (8 or 9 ounces total) fully cooked chicken sausage, thinly sliced

3 large cloves garlic, finely chopped

8 ounces pappardelle pasta (or wide egg noodles or fettuccine)

2 cups cherry or grape tomatoes, cut in half

½ cup shredded Parmesan cheese

1. Pour 1 cup very hot water over mushrooms in a small bowl. Let stand until softened, 10-15 minutes. Drain.

2. Heat a large pot of salted water to a boil. Meanwhile, heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add leek; saute until crisp-tender, about 5 minutes. Stir in sausage, drained mushrooms and garlic. Cook until heated through, 3-4 minutes. Remove from heat.

3. Add pasta to boiling water. Cook until al dente, about 6 minutes. Meanwhile, add tomatoes to skillet and heat through. Drain pasta; add to skillet. Stir well. Serve topped with the cheese.

Nutrition per serving: 535 calories, 27 g fat, 7 g saturated fat, 142 mg cholesterol, 51 g carbohydrates, 24 g protein, 616 mg sodium, 5 g fiber


Prep: 20 minutes

Cook: 20 minutes

Makes: 4 servings

You can use either oil-packed or water-packed tuna here. Or substitute 1 pound cooked small shrimp or 3 cups shredded cooked chicken.

½ cup coarse breadcrumbs or panko crumbs

¼ cup olive oil

1 large red bell pepper, cored, diced

½ large lemon

½ cup sliced or chopped pitted manzanilla, Kalamata or Castelvetrano olives

2 tablespoons drained capers, optional

½ pound bucatini or spaghetti

2 cans (12 ounces each) solid albacore tuna, drained

¼ cup chopped fresh parsley

Freshly ground black pepper

1. Place breadcrumbs in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Toast, stirring constantly (do not walk away), until crisp and golden, 3-4 minutes. Transfer to a plate to cool.

2. Heat a large pot of salted water to a boil. Meanwhile, heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add red pepper; cook until tender, 3-4 minutes. Remove from heat. Grate the zest of the lemon into the peppers, then squeeze in the lemon juice. Stir in olives and capers.

3. Add the pasta to the boiling water. Cook, stirring occasionally, until al dente, 8-10 minutes. Drain well.

4. Turn the heat on under the skillet; add the tuna, parsley and black pepper to taste. Heat briefly, breaking tuna into large chunks. Stir in hot pasta. Serve sprinkled generously with the crisp breadcrumbs.

Nutrition per serving: 561 calories, 19 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 61 mg cholesterol, 55 g carbohydrates, 43 g protein, 567 mg sodium, 4 g fiber

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