Of Pasta and Pasta Sauce

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Of Prostitutes and Pasta sauce – Virgil Evetts 

 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
dried spaghetti

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.

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13 thoughts on “Of Pasta and Pasta Sauce

  1. Oh come off it.
    Italian mamas have been cooking fresh for their LARGE families for centuries! What do you think came first – fresh pasta sauce or Dolmio from a jar?!

    Given that it is JUST as bloody easy to throw a couple of cans of tomatoes, some garlic and anchovies into a saucepan, as it is to empty a congealed, flavourless ‘themed’ sauce from a jar into same, I do NOT buy Fee’s poor excuse of time pressure for succumbing to the dubious advantages of an over-extracted, over-sweetened jar of Dolmio.

    And before you make value judgements about food writers, remember that whatever ‘side of the bridge’ you live on, you can cook and eat well and inexpensively with fresh produce. Italian puttanesca has never been high-brow and elitist. Quite the opposite. This cuisine came from a rustic population subsisting off the land out of economic necessity. It wasn’t named “whore’s spaghetti” because royalty invented it.

    Why is it that we have all fallen like virgins on prom night for these so called ‘convenience/time saving foods? Preparing a weeknight meal from fresh ingredients does not actually take much longer than using food from a jar. And the flavour cannot be compared.

    And anyway, what is WRONG with actually spending a bit of TIME with our cooking? Why does it have to be this dreaded task that we all want to get over with at breakneck speed like a dentist’s visit? Mealtimes should be the glue that keeps a family together, not some distasteful exercise in avoidance. Don’t even get me started on that unforgiveable travesty against good food habits: the book “4 Ingredients”.

    Not to mention the golden opportunity in preparing fresh food for teaching your children about nutrition and the joys of cooking well. For god’s sake, if you are so rushed, get the little rug rats to help you chop and prepare the food! They will love cooking with their mum and it will take the pressure off you. I assume you do not wish to serve your kids like a hotel chambermaid. So do them and yourself a favour and get them cooking.

    My mum had my sisters and I making full dinner meals for our large family of seven by the time we were 9 years old. And we have never looked back.

    But don’t get me started on dried supermarket pasta. I suppose if I start banging on about the endless sumptuous joys of fresh, home made pasta: kneaded, rolled and cut by your good selves (aaah the texture!), I may be pushing it a bit. Fee might put a contract out on my head.

    Don’t stop fighting the good fight, Virg. And buon appetito!

  2. Great work, Virgil. I too used to be disappointing Dolmio buyer. I even liked it – I know! Until my daughter came along and I made choices about what was best for her. Now, even though I work full-time, I still find to whip up a quick pasta meal from cupboard ingredients for my little one and I. And it tastes so much better. By doing this I can slowly stretch and challenge her taste buds, to the point that she wakes up with garlic breath. Yummy. Yet even if I did still do the jar option, your ascerbic wit would not insult me or move me to indignation or curses. I would hang my head, smile and say, “oh, you are so right”. But completely ignore you. And look at the heated discussion you have started – on a food site! We must continue to aspire to the highest form of cooking – long live the Virgil.

  3. I thought of this today when a visiting 12 year old asked could we have salad dressing on our dinner salad. I said of course what sort would you like to which she asked what did we have. She didn’t get it at all that I was going to mix something together and had no idea that salad dressing could be made – she thought it had to come from the bottle that has the man on the side.

  4. Hey Virgil,

    I think Sharons’comments are valid. Most of us work long hours these days hence the proliferation of “ready to eat” products on the market. I try and combat this by cooking much more than I need and freezing the rest, so that a great meal is always close at hand with little prep time.Anyway, keep it going Virgil. Feedback of any variety is always good for business. I like your youthful, savvy style with the pen. All the best.

  5. Mothering is no excuse for poor choices, or warping yours children’s sense of taste, not to mention their sodium levels. That is a parenting crime. I’m speaking as a busy single time poor mother, who knows, thanks to Virgil’s great recipe, I can cook wholesome pasta in 30 minutes. I could even cook with my child, fun.
    Given the recent Chinese experience (I’m making no fun of the situation), isn’t it in our best interests to actually see and understand what goes into our babe’s food. Popping a jar of puppet-marketed goop is a poor second choice.
    Fee really, sell the pony and you could then afford the salted capers, or better yet find a nice French butcher who makes house calls.
    Not disappointed at all – Thank you Virgil

  6. I think some of you may have taken my comments a little too seriously. While I believe quite passionatly that conveneience foods are a very mixed blessing, I fully appreciate, with more than a little sadness their place in the world today.

  7. Virgil, this article disappointed me. I love foodlovers and love the articles on this site, but I was left feeling attacked – not something I think a reader wants to feel, especially when I consider myself a foodlover from way back! I too am a busy woman who, on the occasion, succumbs to the odd Dolmio. I’d love to read something a bit more positive next time! Thanks for the alternative though.

  8. Hi Virgil,

    I keep smiling for a long time after reading your articles / opinions. You are so right not to get started about the evil of chinese garlic. My young 16 year old neice asked me the difference between chinese and NZ garlic last weekend. I think my explanation / lecture took me into a good 15 minutes of explaining!

    I enjoy your stories very much. I to, am a great believer in keeping it simple and staying true to the receipes as it was in its original form. Elizabeth David would have to be a favorite of mine in doing that.

    Should you need any help in researching do let me know as this is something that interests me.

    All the best


  9. Ah Virgil, what a twat! most of us who love food and read this site would surely agree after reading this last load of dribble written in the name of food writer/critic!!, Dolmio was invented for mothers like myself, with loads more children than was really necessary (sadly reaslised this after they were all just past the cute stage!)to be able to finally get home after a huge day running a business, picking up boys and dropping them to rugby, organising girls to dancing and over to friends places (usually on the opposite side of town to where you are)back to rugby to pick up (now smelly) boys, off to drop off uniforms, stopping to cover ponies and feed them to lastly arrive home to more kaos!, and yes the sole salvation in the next daughting round of feed, cleanse and bed is the ever popular albeit not the purist italian we know and love jar of Dolmio – also not to mention that many of use today can not afford either the time or the cash to buy the said jar of salted capers! – so next time try not to be quite so condesending with your comments! :-)