Meditations

A Pasta of Ill Repute


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Spaghetti Puttanesca translates directly as “Whore’s Spaghetti”. There is some debate as to how the dish acquired such an unusual name. Some people suggest that the women-of-ill-repute in Italy would cook this pungent dish to attract hungry customers, just getting off of work or off of a ship. Others argue that in an Italy where prostitution was legal, but heavily stigmatized, the working girls weren’t able to get the same kind of fresh ingredients that the fine upstanding Italian housewives could, and instead had to make due with whatever would keep well in their pantries. Whatever the derivation of it’s name, Spaghetti Puttanesca is a quick and easy pasta dish that has been a weekly mainstay of mine for years.

Recipes for Puttanesca vary, but they all include some central ingredients: olives, anchovies, capers, garlic, and tomatoes. Here are the ingredients that I include in my regular recipe:

  • Olive oil.
  • One large onion.
  • Red pepper flakes or chilis, to taste.
  • 3 or four cloves of garlic, minced.
  • 2 dried bay leaves or one fresh one.
  • 5 or 6 anchovie filets. I buy the small glass jars, which keep longer and are a bit less salty.
  • A 28oz can of tomatoes. Angelo brand plum tomatoes are the tastiest, if you can find them.
  • A big handful of kalamata olives. Buy them with the pits in and pit them easily by squashing them with a chef’s knife.
  • A small handful of capers. Get the ones packed in salt, and rinse them well before use – a tea strainer works well for this.
  • Spaghetti, or bavettine.
  • Fresh parsley and/or basil.

Preparation is easy and takes about 20 minutes. I like to get everything ready in little bowls before hand, but then again, I’m a giant dork.

1. Heat the oil in a saucepan over medium-high heat until it starts to shimmer. Add the onions, pepper flakes, and the bayleaf. Saute and enjoy the smell until the onions are translucent and just starting to change colour.

2. Gather some of the onions into a pile in the middle of the pan, using your spoon. Lay the anchovie filets on top of the onion pile and then cover with some more onions. This allows the anchovies to soften and lets some of the oil to drop down and help to brown the onions, without getting the anchovies burnt.

3. While the anchovies are in their onion nest, add the garlic to an open area of the pan and saute it for a bit. I add the garlic at this point in the recipe – just before the tomatoes get added – so that they don’t get over-browned.

4. When the garlic is just starting to change colour, pour in the whole can of tomatoes. Spend a few minutes playing the ‘cut the tomatoes into pieces with your wooden spoon’ game. Good times.

5. Reduce heat and let the sauce simmer while you do #6.

6. Get out a big pot, fill it with lightly salted water, and start it boiling. You could have done this as #1, but I like to let the sauce simmer off a bit. Plus, if you did it as #1, then this would be #7. And how confusing would that be?

7. I said a BIG pot. Not that little one. Bigger pot = better pasta.

8. Now is a good time to pit the olives, if you haven’t already done that. Also, you can rinse the capers. Once that’s done, add them to the simmering sauce and stir.

9. When your water is boiling, add your pasta. Cook the pasta until it is just short of al dente. Reserve about 1/2 a cup of pasta water, then drain the pasta into a colander.

10. Return the pasta to it’s big cooking pot, and add the sauce to the same pot. Put the pot back on the heat, but bring the heat to low. I’m going to say pot one more time just for the heck of it.

11. Cook the pasta in it’s own sauce for the last few minutes of cooking. If it gets too dry, add the reserved pasta water, as needed. Season with a good salt.

12. Toss the pasta with the parsley and/or basil, and serve with lots of pepper and some fresh cheese. And wine.

Well, there you have it. A pasta recipe that attacks the taste-buds full on, is easy to prepare, and is meat-less, to boot. Give it a try.

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