Spaghetti alla puttanesca is another weeknight stand-by in our house. So quick and—for lack of a better word—lusty.
Makes 4-6 servings
- 500g (1 lb) spaghetti
- 2-3 cloves of garlic (or more to taste), peeled and slightly crushed
- 1-2 dried hot red peppers (peperoncino)
- Olive oil
- 250g (8 oz) canned tomatoes
- Anchovy fillets
- Black olives, preferably of the Gaeta variety
- A few parsley sprigs, finely minced
You begin as if you were making an aglio, olio e peperoncino, lightly sautéing a few cloves of garlic, along with a peperoncino or two, in olive oil in a skillet until the garlic is just beginning to brown a bit. Then add canned tomatoes, crushed with your hands, and simmer until the tomato is well reduced to a saucy consistency and separated from the oil. Add, to taste, capers, anchovy fillets and black Gaeta olives. Turn off the burner and let them cook just with the residual heat. If you like, you can also add some chopped parsley, just before you add spaghetti, cooked very al dente in well salted water. Mix well and serve immediately.
Of course, as with all classic dishes, there are any number of variations on the puttanesca theme. The above recipes is my personal variation, actually, on the classic recipe, which would have you add the anchovies, (chopped) capers and, if using, olives to simmer along with the tomatoes. In the classic version, these garnishes lend their flavor to the sauce. Personally, I prefer to leave the anchovy fillets whole, and add these garnishes at almost the very end, barely cooking them only with the residual heat in the skillet. This preserves the individual ‘personality’ of each ingredient. The portions of capers, olives, anchovies and peperoncino can be adjusted to your personal taste. Some recipes omit the olives, while some call for chopped parsley to be added to the sauce just before the pasta. I’ve seen recipes calling for onion and/or basil as well, although these ingredients would tend to give the sauce a ‘mellower’ character that I personally don’t associate with a puttanesca.And, please, no grated cheese…
The sauce is at its best if you use salted anchovies (which need to be filleted and rinsed) and salted capers, but if you don’t have any on hand, anchovies packed in oil and capers in vinegar will do. (Rinse the capers, whether in salt or vinegar before using them.)
As some of you probably know, the name of the sauce comes from the word puttana, which means “whore”. (Hey, don’t kill the messenger!) The dish is also sometimes called by the slightly more genteel name of pasta alla malafemmina, which loosely translates into something like ‘naughty lady’ or even ‘ evil woman’ or just ‘streetwalker’. It is also known by the even more euphemistic pasta alla belladonna–‘beautiful woman’. I’ve always heard two stories about where the name comes from. One is that the name is a tongue-in-cheek allusion to the ‘lusty’ nature of the sauce. The other is that being very quick to make, this dish was favored by professional ladies because it could be prepared and eaten between ‘shifts’. The dish is probably Neapolitan in origin, although some think it may be Sicilian. But stories abound about how the dish got its name. (For those who want more background and read Italian, check out this article. For some background on puttanesca in English, click here.)