Pasta Puttanesca. I almost don’t care what it tastes like. I just love saying it. I put a lot of emphasis on the P’s and the T’s and the ESCA! Pretend you are Italian (if you aren’t) and say it with me: Pa-sta Pu-tta-NE-SCA! Then I found out what it meant. Oooops!
Puttanesca is derived from the Italian word puttana, which means whore. Puttana apparently comes from the Latin word putida, which means stinking. While prostitutes may not have invented it, they are the sauce’s name sake. It is claimed that the working girls of Naples in the mid-1950’s lured their customers with the aromatic smell of this lusty sauce. Once inside the brothel, the men dined while waiting their turn for other various and sundry forms of service. I’m not sure I buy that story. Yes, the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, but is that the way to his wallet? And who really wants a full stomach before you-know-what? I’m just saying, I mean really….
It could be that it was a convenient way to squeeze in a meal when every minute, and penny, of the working day counted. The ingredients were common pantry items, which meant the girls didn’t have to leave the comforts of home for days, just to go to market.
It’s a simple sauce. Diced tomatoes are infused with garlic, anchovies, capers, olives and red pepper flakes. Not only does it fill the kitchen with an intoxicating aroma, the sauce itself is bursting with flavor.
The good news is you don’t have to be a professional to serve it. Keep your pantry stocked, and you can have a fairly instant and impressive meal. Don’t be afraid of the anchovies, and don’t try to make this dish without them. It just wouldn’t be the same. The anchovies dissolve into the sauce and discreetly transform this dish. I’ve made it for so-called anchovy haters. I didn’t reveal the secret ingredient until dinner was over. I know. I’m a bad, bad girl.
3 tablespoons olive oil (or oil from deli bar olives)
3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
2 oz flat anchovies in olive oil
¾ cup quartered, pitted, salt-cured olives (get a variety from the grocery deli bar)
3 tablespoons non-pareil capers, drained and rinsed
½ teaspoon crushed dried red pepper flakes
750 grams Pomi chopped tomatoes
1 pound spaghetti
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
18 capers, drained and patted dry (the next size above non-pareil)
3 tablespoons olive oil
Sauce: Preheat a large skillet over medium heat. Sauté the olive oil and garlic for a minute, then add the anchovies. Sauté until the anchovies dissolve. Add the olives, capers, red pepper flakes and sauté for about 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes and simmer until the pasta is ready.
Spaghetti: Prepare the spaghetti according to package directions. The trick to flavorful pasta is to generously salt the water. It takes spaghetti about 9-10 minutes to cook to al dente. We want to make sure the sauce is ready before the pasta.
Garnish: In a small pot, heat the olive oil till it shimmers. Add the 18 capers and fry until they bloom, about three minutes. Transfer to a paper towel to drain. Be careful as the oil may splatter.
Presentation: With a large fork, twirl the pasta into large haystacks and transfer to warmed plates. Sprinkle with chopped parsley. Top the stacks with the deep fried capers. Spoon sauce on the plate around the base of the haystack. Drizzle the pasta with basil oil.
Chef’s tip: I found miniature bottles of basil oil at Cost Plus World Market. This is a great idea as flavored oils don’t have a long shelf life.