As I’ve mentioned before, I am not the least bit Italian, nor did I grow up near any Italian-American enclaves, so true, traditional Italian food wasn’t really in the culinary repertoire when I was a kid. Sure, we had some, but it’s the dishes everyone had, like marinara sauce over pasta, spaghetti and meatballs, meaty lasagna, alfredo, and the occasional chicken parmigiana. And that was pretty much it.
Moving to New York, a city with a huge and legendary Italian community, has taught me much about Italian food, and I’ve been quite happy and eager to learn. One dish I knew nothing about as a child, including its existence, is puttanesca sauce.
Puttanesca sauce is usually served over pasta, long or short cut is fine. And it has quite the colorful history. The dish was born in Naples, Italy, and strictly translated, puttanesca means “in the style of the whore.” Yeah…
As is true with most classic dishes out there, the exact origin isn’t entirely agreed upon, but there seem to be three working theories, none of which are terribly flattering, and all of which involve brothels.
Some say that the working women in the brothels made this very fragrant sauce, then placed it in open windows so the smell would waft down to the street, and this is how they would lure the men in. Others think that the women made this sauce for the men who were, um, standing in line awaiting their turn, so they wouldn’t get hungry or bored and leave. And still others say that the prostitutes made this sauce for themselves to eat; since it is made so quickly and easily, they would have plenty of time to make it and eat it between, uh, appointments.
Whatever the exact history, we do know that this is quite flavorful, and ridiculously easy to throw together for a very delicious weeknight meal. And unsavory name aside, it really is very tasty and healthy. So please, forget everything you read here and make this one tonight. You and your family will love its intense flavor and how fast you’ll be able to sit down to dinner.
Source: adapted from Eat This Book by Tyler Florence
1 (16 oz.) box penne pasta
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 cup black olives, such as kalamata, pitted and roughly chopped
1 tsp dried red chile flakes
3 tbs capers, drained
2 (28 oz.) cans whole, peeled tomatoes
¼ cup fresh basil leaves, torn
Kosher salt and black pepper
1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Bring a pot of water to a boil. Generously salt it, then add the pasta and cook to al dente according to package directions.
Put a large skillet over medium heat and add a thin film of olive oil to the bottom of it. Add the garlic and anchovies and cook, using a wooden spoon to break up the anchovies until they seem to dissolve in the oil. Add the olives, red pepper flakes, and capers, and let that cook for 2 minutes, stirring often.
Toss in the tomatoes with their juices and use a potato masher to crush them. Bring to a low simmer. Add the basil, then season to taste with just a pinch of salt and black pepper. Simmer for 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the cheese. Taste for seasoning. Remember to go easy on the salt at first because the anchovies, olives and capers are already salty.
Drain the pasta and add it to the skillet with the sauce. Toss with a large spoon or tongs, then pour the whole pasta dish into a serving bowl. Garnish with extra basil if you wish and serve extra cheese at the table.