Italian Sauces IX: Puttanesca

Well, well.  What have we here?

Well, well.  What have we here?

I present you the humble can.

You know how I'm always talking about fresh ingredients?  Today, we're going to jettison all of that fancy, nourishing crap.  You heard me correctly.  Canned food has never been so sexy.

The way to celebrate the pantry is with pasta puttanesca.  If you've ever read a Series of Unfortunate Events, then you know that making the dish is one of the first challenges that the Baudelaire siblings confront.  Brainiac brother Klaus searches for possible dinners that the siblings can prepare for the wicked Count Olaf and his troupe of weirdos.  In Chapter 3 of the aptly-titled Bad Beginning, Klaus pages through a cookbook, and comes upon "'Puttanesca.'" 

"It's an Italian sauce for pasta.  All we need to do is sauté olives, capers, anchovies, garlic, chopped parsley, and tomatoes together in a pot, and prepare spaghetti to go with it," he states, empowered.  For three orphans with limited cooking skills and limited funds, the dish is easy enough to put together. 

Count Olaf ends up hating it, just another indication that the guy's a real piece of garbage.  Cause puttanesca is great, just not for the reasons that readers of this site may be used to.  It's a celebration of only the most powerful of flavors that can survive canning process.  It's loud, assertive, salty, spicy, tangy.  But its brashness is actually a breath of fresh air.

Now Mr. Snicket did not engage in any etymological discussion of the dish for his children's book for good reason.  He spared young minds--and their parents, no doubt--any discussion of the saucier implications of the name of the dish--even though Olaf's plan to marry the young Violet for her family fortune was a tad risqué for youngsters, in my humble estimation...

To be direct, "puttanesca" can mean "whorish."  This has led many analysts to offer their half-baked analyses of the provenance of the dish.  Some stories are that 1) this dish was fast enough to throw together for enterprising women between "appointments"; 2) the dish was cheap enough to put together during lean times; 3) the dish was aromatic enough to entice new clients on the streets of Naples to pay the cook a visit; 4) the dish's loud flavors were reminiscent of a floozy's garish fashions.

Pick whichever colorful story you like best.  But just know that none of them are likely true.  In Italian, use of the word "puttana" and associated adjectives doesn't necessarily connote sex work.  It can also be used to mean something like "garbage", "trash", "crap", etc. etc.  So basically, puttanesca means throwing a bunch of crap that was sitting in your pantry together.  Indeed, that's supposedly what happened when Sandro Petti, a cook at a restaurant on the Neapolitan island of Ischia, had some late-night visitors in the mid-1950s.  They told him to throw together whatever crap he had in the kitchen, and voilà, he gave them puttanesca. 

That story hasn't been confirmed, but I think its instructive nevertheless.  The spirit of the dish is easily understood from its principle ingredients.  Look at those ingredients Klaus mentioned: anchovies, capers, olives.  All of them are prominently featured in dishes from the areas of Italy south of Rome, especially Campania (where Naples is) and Sicily.  All of them are staple, pantry goods that are basically non-perishable.  In post-war Italy, fresh food wasn't necessarily readily available.  So you just had to make do with what you could get that was cheap, sanitary, and available.

That is, with puttanesca, we're dealing with a type of urban cucina povera here.  Instead of subtle, fresh flavors combining to form the culinary equivalent of a little night music (or vodka sauce, whose luxuriousness which would be the equivalent of a Baroque Bach piece), we have brash, preserved goods playing off each other, if done correctly, the climax of Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture."

Pasta puttanesca

  • 8 anchovy fillets with oil
  • 5 cloves of garlic, minced
  • At least 3/8 tsp. red pepper flake
  • 1 28-oz can of San Marzano whole, peeled tomatoes
  • 3 tablespoons capers
  • 1/4 cup chopped black or kalamata olives
  • 1/2 tsp. of red wine vinegar
  • Fresh parsley
  • 1 pound of spaghetti or penne

Put your pasta water on.  Alrighty, let's crack that can open.

See a nice row of anchovy fillets?  That's what we're gonna start with.  Don't get weirded out yet.  Sure, they may be somewhat unappealing in their current form.  Unless you are a hard-core preserved-fish devotee, you probably aren't too keen in shotgunning this whole can.  But as we've seen before, heat transforms everything.  Once those creepy buggers hit the pan, the high oil content in their flesh--replete with Omega-3 fatty acids, I might add--with permit them to basically disintegrate.  The fishiness will give way to a delicious, golden umami.  Humans for centuries have understood this.  The Romans loved their garum.  When the British were in China, they discovered something that they called "Ketchup."  Fish sauce is a critical element of much of Southeast Asian cuisine to this day, in Piedmonte, people dip their crudites in bagna cauda, and in Nice, people love their Pissaladière.  If it's good enough for all those folks, it's good enough for us, eh?

Pour some of the oil from your can into your pan, then slap the fillets in on medium-high heat.  Stir them around until you get an awesome paste.  Then slap your garlic in.

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The point of the dish is to be bold, not subtle.  So we're really gonna blast all of the critical ingredients.  We have the unami of the anchovy, now we've added a burst of spicy, sulfurous allium.  DON'T BURN THEM.  Only lightly toast these, on medium-low.  We're not looking for straw-colored here, like in the Aglio e olio.  We want this garlic to bite back.  When they're all fragrant and good, dump your chili flake in.  You need this sauce a little hotter than you would like your marinara, for example.  Remember, we're painting in bold colors here, not pastels--Ted Cruz must love this one. 

When the oil is good and infused, pour the can of tomatoes in.  I've advised whole tomatoes here, because the chunkiness is good with the other ingredients.  The slickness of pasatta seems against the spirit of the dish, but you are a free agent in all of this.  Act according to your will.  I will also advise that you not add too much salt.  Every ingredient in here has been processed, so they're all rather powerfully salty.  Unless you have low-blood pressure or terrible taste buds, don't salt until the end.

Black beauties

Black beauties

As the tomato sauce slowly bubbles (on medium-low), drop your pasta in, and turn to your next Mediterranean additive: olives.  Pick a black variety, French or Italian, or kalamata.  They offer salt and a touch of bitterness.  I'm not the biggest fan of olives, so I go relatively easy on these.  But if you really love them, go nuts.  Just remember, olives have pits in them.  I'd advise removing them if you're wedded to your molars.

Chop these up coarsely.  Set them aside, and chop up the capers.  They are our final key player.  The berry of a Mediterranean plant, they're tangy and salty.  When the pasta is just about done, slide the chopped stuff into the sauce, and add a tablespoon of the caper brine.  Don't do this too early, or I find that the olives make the sauce too bitter.

Things are heating up here.

Things are heating up here.

Taste the sauce for salt, then dump the pasta in.  Either spaghetti or penne is authentic, but I was feeling spaghetti today.  If you prefer to keep the olives coarse, or prefer diced tomatoes, in a very chunky production, maybe pick penne.  Just remember to work that pantry.

Stir the pasta through and get ready to serve.  This is where the vinegar comes in.  A final note of brightness is awesome here.  So dribble a little in here to wake everything up.  And given that everything here is canned and on the dark-end of the flavor profile (just look at that pan of sauce above), the fresh greenness of fresh parsley is quite welcome here.  And authentic too: just imagine a hard-up urbanite with a window-box filled with fresh parsley for just such an occasion.  An easy way to dress up canned food, to be sure.  Cheese is not traditional, but hey, nobody's looking.

The Baudelaires would approve.

The Baudelaires would approve.

These days, canned and processed food get a bad rap.  People are into farm-to-table, whole-animal, local garden, farm-share, etc.  And that's great.  It's about living closer to the land, and eschewing the pizza-blasted potato crisps and pasteurized cheese food in favor of good, clean fun.  But let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater.  Preserved or canned goods can be great.  They're time savers, they're cheap, they're shelf-stable, they're hygienic, and most importantly, they taste good.  So as good as fresh food is--and it certainly is, don't get me wrong--it's always important to keep in mind that a well-stocked pantry makes an effective kitchen and happy eaters.  That's why it made such excellent sense to have the three plucky Baudelaire orphans be the messengers of this special sauce in recent popular culture.  Not everyone has the luxury of good produce.  Not everyone can slave over a stove all day.  Not everyone can afford fancy ingredients.   And in this way, pasta puttanesca is an excellent symbol of the power of thrift and creativity in the face of want.