I survived finals. It was a little vicious, but I am alive and breathing, and feeling fairly successful. Thus, I have no complaints, especially in light of the fact that I am now blessed with abundant free time. The other night, I leisurely cooked pasta puttanesca, while listening to the Takeaway (my favorite news-radio program) in its entirety, rather than rushing through it like I usually do in the mornings. All of this occurred after spending the day with friends, just hanging out, rather than suffocating in a group study room of the library. Of course, it cannot last. Reality will beckon for me in a few weeks and, I assure you, I will be ready for it, and most likely complaining of boredom by then. About a week later, I will lament my demanding schedule. The human spirit can be inconsolable, always desirous of whatever it lacks. To be honest, I was plagued by a dash of anxiety, and a twinge of guilt prior to my puttanesca production. After counting the minutes until my finals passed, I felt uncomfortable in my aimlessness, but the puttanesca brought me back. Cooking is a rare, albeit temporary, cure for our lack of sustainable contentedness. If anything can bring you back to the present moment, it’s something sizzling aggressively on your stove, or a big knife in your hand, that is unavoidably close to your fingertips. Cooking is like a meditation that happens to result in something good to eat.
Puttanesca sauce is a tomato-based pasta sauce full of bold, sultry flavors: spicy red pepper flakes, briny capers, rich olives, and a little anchovy paste in the base of the sauce. I beg of you: do not let the anchovy paste scare you off. There is nothing fishy about this dish, but the anchovies elicit a mysterious depth of flavor, a certain “je ne sais quoi.” I cannot accurately identify what the anchovies add, but I guarantee, you will notice their absence.
2 tablespoons olive oil
½ onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
Salt and pepper to taste (easy on the salt)
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon anchovy paste
½ teaspoon dried oregano
10 grape tomatoes, halved (optional)
1-14 oz. can whole peeled tomatoes
8 to 10 kalamata olives*, pitted and coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon of capers, plus more for garnish
Chopped parsley for garnish
Pasta of your choice (I used thin spaghetti)
· In a medium-sized saucepan, sauté the chopped onion over medium to medium-high heat in the olive oil. Sauté for a few minutes until translucent, but not browned.
· Add garlic, anchovy paste, a few grinds of pepper, oregano, and red pepper flakes (no salt – the anchovies are salty enough); stir to combine. Sauté until onions are cooked through (about 10 minutes total, but I like to let them go for about 15 because I really don’t like crunchy onions in tomato sauce).
· (Now would probably be a good time to put a pot of water on to boil for the pasta.)
· Add the grape tomatoes, if using. Allow them to cook for 3-5 minutes, stirring occasionally.
· Add the can of tomatoes with their juice. Break up the tomatoes with a wooden spoon (the tomatoes can remain fairly chunky as they will break down while cooking, and will be blended later).
· Reduce heat to medium-low; cover the sauce, venting the lid slightly. Allow the sauce to simmer gently for at least 15 minutes. Stir occasionally, and taste for seasoning, but be weary of the salt since capers and olives will be added later, and both are quite salty.
· Add pasta to the boiling water. This amount of sauce can handle close to a ½ pound of pasta.
· Use an immersion blender to smooth out the sauce if desired, but don’t obliterate it of all texture. This can also be done with a standing blender, but should be done in batches. Be sure to vent the blender and cover with a dishtowel to avoid explosions.
· Add capers and olives. Stir to combine, and check for seasoning.
· When pasta is ready, reserve about a ½ cup or so of pasta cooking water and drain. Combine pasta and sauce; add pasta water as needed to help the sauce adhere to the pasta. Garnish with parsley and enjoy!
Comments: You may have noticed an absence of one of my favorite ingredients here. I deliberately left off the CHEESE. Although a sprinkle of Parmesan is perfectly appropriate in this context, I honestly did not want it. The sauce has enough inherent richness and flavor. Due to my undying commitment to cheese, the fact that I didn’t want it left me a little disturbed. So after I ate about half my portion, I added some, and I wish to this minute I had trusted my intuition. It was just too much: I felt like I was taking an exam, and hastily changed one of my answers at the last minute, only to discover that my initial instincts had been correct. Without the cheese, I found the pasta dangerously close to perfection. The addition of the grape tomatoes is not traditional, but those juicy crimson pearls helped balance out the boldness of the other flavors. I made an effort to leave them alone when possible while my immersion blender maneuvered its way through the sauce.
Ultimately, this dish is pungent and intoxicating, which its name reflects. According to foodreference.com, in Italian, puttanesca translates to “in the style of the whore,” and puttana translates to “whore.” A common interpretation of the name is that the smell of the pasta was used to lure customers to brothels. However, puttana stems from the Latin word putida, which means “stinking.” And this sauce does have quite a striking aroma. Despite the mythical origins of this dish, it is quite delicious, though not for the faint of heart.
*See glossary for definitions