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Pasta with a heart of gold

By SHANNON WATKINS

shannon@southwesttimes.com

 

Like a lot of people who grew up in Anglophilic, middle class homes of a certain era, the spaghetti sauce I ate was made from scratch with nothing more exotic in it than canned mushrooms. It tended to be sweet and was about as Italian as Wonder Bread. It might have a few shakes of dried basil and oregano in it, but nobody from Naples or Sicily would have eaten a forkful and declared it just like Nonna’s.

After exposure to good Italian restaurants and cooking magazines that are usually more aspirational than practical, I’ve developed a taste for less sweet sauces. In the gallery of my rotating preferences, I go through periods where I like the sauce to be downright briny, especially when made with anchovies, which a lot of people turn their noses up at. Really, they don’t know what they’re missing.

When in such a mood, I like pasta puttanesca, which contains a number of salty, fishy ingredients, depending on what region of Italy you’re trying to imitate. Or, more realistically, what you like and what’s in your pantry. I feel that even a purist about authentic Italian cuisine can’t get too upset about your choices here; the dish itself only hearkens back to around the 1960’s.

As for the “puttanesca” part, it’s Italian for “of the—,” ah…well, let’s say it was named after ladies who practice the world’s oldest profession. No, not gardening. According to legend, or as much legend as you can build up in only 50 years, the point is that it can be cooked quickly between, um, the company of one gentleman caller and the next. Which seems like an arbitrary designation, given how many foods can be made up fast—even in the 60’s, when microwaves weren’t around yet. Did some very sexist male chef name it, implying that any woman who cut corners in the kitchen to save time is of less than sterling virtue? And what does this say about Pop-Tarts?

At any rate, it’s a tomato-based sauce that can have various amounts of garlic, anchovies, capers, olives and chili peppers, and is seasoned with oregano, along with plain old salt and pepper.

I’ll reiterate that I love anchovies, even if they’re basically tiny little fish-flavored salt licks. However, it’s a rare day when I want myself and my kitchen to smell for hours after handling and eating them. I find that the trick is to buy a tube of anchovy paste, which doesn’t have quite the same punch but is still strong enough to get the point across. Like tubes of tomato paste, you can squeeze out as little as you need without having an open container of leftover product to deal with. Also, you can leave it in the bathroom for that one unwelcome weekend guest and tell them it’s fancy European toothpaste.

I’ll also admit right here that I’m far too lazy to cook my own marinara sauce, even though it’s criminally easy in the first place. I prefer a jar of Newman’s, because it’s good and the money from it goes to charity, which makes me feel slightly better. You can just imagine what that chef who dreamed puttanesca up would say about me.

All you need, really, is whichever of the above ingredients are listed that you have on hand, a jar of plain sauce and some pasta. Along with a basic green salad and maybe some crusty bread, you have a good enough meal for almost anybody. You might not want to get too involved explaining the name if one of your guests is the preacher, though.

One more note: putting olive oil in boiling water is touted as a way to keep pasta from sticking to itself, which doesn’t work unless you know something I don’t. Make sure to put plenty of salt in the water, though, and once you drain the pasta, toss it in a bowl, drizzle it with olive oil and stir it up so each strand is lightly coated. Even if you refrigerate it plain, and the olive oil solidifies in the cold, once you heat it up the oil will melt again and the strands will slip and slide around without that gluey effect.

Pasta Puttanesca

1 jar of plain marinara sauce

1 tsp. -1/2 Tbsp. anchovy paste, to taste (go easy to start)

2-3 Tbps. capers

2-4 cloves of garlic, minced

¼ to 1/3 cup of olives, green or kalamata or mixed, chopped

red pepper flakes

freshly ground black pepper

oregano

olive oil

Heat a tablespoon or two of olive oil on low and toss in garlic, stirring around to keep from burning. In a minute or two, the garlic will have infused the oil and released its aroma further. Toss in the capers, olives and anchovy paste and stir for a minute or two. Turn the heat up to medium-high and immediately pour in the marinara. Season with the red and black pepper and oregano to taste; check to see if it needs salt (it may not). The more you make this, the more you’ll develop your own taste for what proportions of the ingredients you like, and cook it accordingly.

Serve over as much pasta as suits you.

Well, there you go. I hope you enjoy it! Heaven knows what story I’ll have to tell when I give you my recipe for Jezebel Sauce.