You people make me sick! Well some of you do anyway. Ok, so maybe not sick, but slightly seedy with disappointment at the very least.
I’m referring to those amongst you who park your trolleys in the ever-expanding pre-made pasta sauce section of the supermarket and after much deliberation actually BUY the stuff [!!!]. This is almost as unforgivable a sin as buying pre-made vinaigrette [which on reflection is less sin than proof of patent stupidity]. Yes, I’m on a bit of self-important tirade here, but A/ what else is food writing really? And B/ this is an issue that really gets my goat.
Sure, those jars of red stuff masquerading as authentic Italian pasta sauces contain all sorts of appealing ingredients, and are, by and large, free of anything very malignant in the way of additives. But, and this is a very big but, THEY ALL TASTE THE SAME. Tomatoey and oniony, with the whiff of the pressure-cooker about them and a mystery flavor note that is probably everybody’s favourite preservative- ascorbic acid [Vitamin C]. Just because Vitamin C is good for us doesn’t mean it tastes nice or has any business loitering about in a pasta sauce.
In Italy, you will never find anything resembling Dolmio [beware of food sold by puppets] style sauces. These products are really more like a sort of inferior ratatouille. Maybe you like that, I don’t know; but lets you and I never speak of them again.
Ok, so if I’m going to crucify you for your lazy, freshness-seal popping ways, it’s only fair that I offer you an alternative.
Spaghetti alla Puttanesca is a fixture on most Italian restaurant menus here and abroad, but frustratingly its one of those things that, despite being such a doddle to throw together, so often arrives watery and underwhelming. My theory about this is that the simpler dishes are farmed out to the kitchen hands, who don’t know what they are doing and don’t much care. Trouble is, the simpler a dish is, the easier it is to mess up.
The origins of this sauce are rather murky. Puttana is a rather unflattering Italian word for a prostitute. So literally translated Spaghetti alla Puttanesca means whores’ spaghetti. One story says that it was favored by overworked Napolese prostitutes because it could be thrown together in a hurry i.e. between sailors [ not literally]. Other stories suggest it was served to the clients of prostitutes while they waited in line. In fact the only verifiable detail is that it was first made in Napoli during the 1950s or 60s.
Disappointingly [because I quite like these stories] the consensus of opinion among Italian food scholars is that Spaghetti alla Puttanesca probably just means tarted-up spaghetti- referring to the chilli, olives and capers. Undaunted, my Best Beloved’s teenage brother still refers to it as ‘Sluts’ Spaghetti‘. Nice.
Origins and salacious stories aside, this is great dish. Spicy, rich and redolent with garlic. And, as the working girls [and boys I suppose] of the South may or may not have found, it can be thrown together in a jiffy from a few common pantry items.
Spaghetti alla Puttanesca
I find published recipes are very timid about garlic. Live a little. This is meant to be gutsy food.
As every chilli is different you will need to make your own mind up about quantities. The sauce should be spicy but not incendiary, so tread carefully- especially with dry chilies which can be sneaky little bastards.
I’m not a great fan of anchovies on their own, but they are essential here, melted into the oil as part of a sort of Southern-style soffritto with garlic and chilli. The fillets lose all form and fishiness but add a certain depth of flavor to the sauce, not unlike the way fish sauce works in Thai food and asafetida works in some Indian dishes.
You will need:
2 cans Italian tomatoes
6-8 cloves of New Zealand garlic, [don’t get me started on the evil that is Chinese garlic]
Fresh or dried chilies [NOT Habenero]
3 or 4 anchovy fillets
black olives [preferably Kalamata or similar]
capers [if using salted capers be sure to soak them first]
extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper
In a mortar and pestle pound together the garlic and chili. Heat about ¼ cup of olive oil in a heavy pan or wok. Add the garlic, chili and anchovies. Reduce heat and stir until garlic is translucent and anchovies have mostly dissolved. Do not allow garlic to burn or crisp. The bitterness will taint the whole dish
Increase heat again and add the tomatoes, one can at a time. When simmering, use a potato masher to pulp the tomatoes. Reduce heat and leave to simmer, uncovered for about 15-20 minutes. Stir occasionally and do not allow sauce to stick or burn.
By now the sauce will have thickened, darkened in colour and will smell rich and meaty.
Add about 6 olives and a teaspoon of capers per person, stir through and adjust the seasoning by taste. Remember that the olives and anchovies are quite salty so don’t over do it.
To each plate of cooked pasta ladle about ¼ to ½ cup of sauce. Less really is more with this sauce; it’s potent stuff and best savored in moderation.
Finish with a few shavings of Parmigiano or Grana Padano. Bliss.
I’ll leave you with a piece of sage advice.
If your best beloved ever asks, “If you had to choose between me or a wheel of Parmesan which would it be?” don’t consider the question for several minutes before saying ‘the cheese’. Dinner was a strained affair that night.