Spaghetti alla Puttanesca
52 weeks in Italy. Week Cinque (five)
This week we are presenting a savory Italian pasta dish called Spaghetti alla Puttanesca. This is a Neapolitan dish that has an interesting history. This sauce was another one presented by Giuliano Hazan in his Craftsy course Classic Italian Pasta Sauces: Meat and Tomato. This dish is not found in our main text for this series Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan. Instead, you need to either purchase Giuliano’s, The Classic Pasta Cookbook, or you can find the recipe online here.
Part of the reason we do Culinary Sojourns is to expand our knowledge of different regional and cultural cuisine. This sampling we do allows us to cook with different ingredients, learn new techniques, and experiment with different flavors. Since our focus is authentic Italian cuisine we will stay true to the recipe as much as possible.
Getting to the somewhat seedy history of this Italian dish, in Giuliano’s words, “‘Puttana’ means ‘ladies of the night’ and this is the pasta dish she would make for her clients.” We’ll kind of leave it at that. Basically this is a sauce made up of tomatoes, olives, capers and fresh garlic. We’ve made a few different versions of this sauce. One that we really enjoy comes from Rao’s Cookbook, by Frank Pellegrino. That recipe includes chopped onion, white wine and basil. Still, we’re finding while going through our tour across authentic Italian cooking that it really focuses on simplicity and cooking technique. Dishes can vary considerably going from northern to southern Italy.
We made some mistakes the first time we prepared the sauce recipe by adding the oil that comes with the anchovies. We didn’t think it would have much influence considering the volume of tomatoes we added, but in the end, it had a profound effect. It turned the balance from a subtle flavor to more of an unwelcome star attraction. We needed to do some serious improvisation in order to salvage the sauce like adding onion and butter to help balance the saltiness. It took a number of ingredients to correct it, but by the time we were done, we had an edible sauce albeit with a far different recipe. So the moral of the story, if you are going to error on the anchovies stick with the proper number of fillets the recipe calls for.
That brings up an important point, during some of our courses we have been taking, some of our instructors challenge us to “mess” with the recipe. By messing with a recipe, this could take the form of purposefully adding too much of an ingredient and see how it changes the dish. Or using a lower quality ingredient and see how your dish turns out, for example. To gain awareness, or “enlightenment” as a cook, sometimes you need to test the limits of a recipe. You really come into your own as a chef or home cook by being able to improvise and know how to correct mistakes in your recipes should they happen.
Our second attempt at making the sauce, we followed Giuliano’s recipe nearly to the letter. We made the decision to add onion and white wine to the recipe similar to Rao’s in this attempt. Based on our experience on the first attempt, we felt it needed that extra mellowing and sweetness from the onion and slight fruitiness from the white wine. We weren’t disappointed. The result was terrific. In case you wish to choose to make the same modifications, we added a medium onion and a ¼ cup dry white wine to Giuliano’s recipe. After dissolving the anchovies in the olive oil, we added the chopped onions and sweated those out, then added our garlic. Finally we added the white wine and reduced that mixture until the alcohol fully cooked off. Then, we added the rest of the ingredients to the sauce as directed by the recipe.
The Kalamata olives and capers lend strong flavor components to the sauce. In fact, we ended up soaking the capers after rinsing them in cold water to help reduce some of the strong taste you sometimes get from capers straight out of the jar. The next time we make this sauce, we are going to choose a different type of olive. The Kalamata olives, we found are overpowering in this sauce.
For those of you who are alert and are questioning our statement of “staying true to the recipe,” technically, since this recipe doesn’t come out of our primary text, we took a little liberty and “bent” our rule a little bit. Still, these are common ingredients to many Italian recipes, so we didn’t deviate dramatically as we had the first time we made the sauce. This isn’t a difficult sauce to make. In fact, it is probably a step or two above the Onion and Tomato sauce we made a couple weeks ago. For us, Rao’s kind of set the standard for us as eating their version of Puttanesca was like taking a culinary vacation to the Mediterranean. We wanted that experience with this sauce.
For the fresh oregano for this recipe, we made a special trip to our local nursery and picked up an overgrown oregano plant after seeing the wilted fresh oregano at our local supermarket. Look for deals this time of year, we got our very lively bush at 75% off and paid about $1.25 for it. The deals were so good we ended splurging on some sage, Italian parsley and another basil plant. Herbs are great to get as typically, you use them more towards the end of the growing season, so now is a good time to fill out your herb garden. Look for those deals.
To serve, typically, you finish cooking your sauce first. Then when it is done, then cook your pasta. We used straight out of the box spaghetti for this recipe. After you drain the pasta, pour it into a bowl and then toss the pasta with the sauce. There is a fine balance of sauce to noodle. What is great about Italian sauces is you cook out most of the liquid out of the sauce. Then, when you toss in with the pasta, it coats it very nicely. For Spaghetti alla Puttanesca, add just a splash of olive oil when you toss the pasta and when you are done what you will have is one terrific meal. We highly recommend this sauce whether you make it exactly according to the recipe or slightly alter it like we did. Just remember the four primary ingredients to a Puttanesca sauce—garlic, tomatoes, olives and capers.
On the next installment in our Italian Culinary Sojourn, we may make another classic Italian pasta sauce or get back into soup making. As of this writing, we haven’t decided yet. But regardless of which one we choose, it will be sure to please the palate. By the way, since we have started cooking out of Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, she is now over 510 reviews on Amazon and has an overall ranking of nearly five stars! That’s proven cooking with proven recipes. We are greatly enjoying our time in Italy. Drop us a line and let us know some of your favorites.
As always, we’ll post progress photos on Facebook. So, you’ll want to keep checking back for that.
If there are any questions or comments, please let us know by e-mailing us at email@example.com