Project Quarantine: How to Make Spaghetti Alla Puttanesca
A dish that originated in Italian brothels is surprisingly suited for an era of contagious disease
Pasta alla puttanesca is a dish rooted in folklore. Ask any culinary expert about its origins and each one likely give you a different story. Roughly translating to in the style of a whore, puttanesca is pungent, briny, sweet and spicy, a whirlwind of fragrance and flavor that is easily concocted from a modestly stocked cupboard.
A common story is that that the dish’s pungent smell was designed to lure patrons in to houses of erotic entertainment. Some culinary historians dispute this, suggesting that the dish was made popular during WWII when fresh groceries were scarce and many women, in times of desperation, turned to sex work. Most agree, however, that it’s the sauce’s divine bouquet that reminds one of devious sexual encounters. In short, pasta puttanesca smells like sex the way a Goop candle smells like Gwyneth Paltrow’s vagina. It’s not literal, but it’s still undeniable.
Regardless of puttanesca’s questionable culinary history and provocative aroma, it’s proven to be a saving grace when I’m out of groceries. I live in Queens, New York, currently the epicenter of the Coronavirus pandemic. If it wasn’t already an issue that I had to carry my groceries home from a supermarket that is nearly a half mile away, store hours have been greatly reduced and the line often stretches several blocks. I haven’t been to a grocery store in 11 days, it’s 8 p.m. and I need to make dinner. Without hesitation I was able to pull together the ingredients of this dish.
- One tin of anchovies, drained.
- 2 tsp. dried red chili flakes
- 4-6 cloves of garlic
- A cup of pitted olives
- Tablespoon of capers
- One can crushed tomatoes
- A bunch of fresh parsley
- A block of Pecorino Locatelli
- Half a box of spaghetti, linguini or penne will also do.
- Extra virgin olive oil
Now, If you’re missing some ingredients, don’t fret. Odds are you can throw this together with whatever you have in your kitchen. Choose your own adventure! I’ve made this dish with gochujang and cilantro, I’ve made it without any tomatoes at all. When it comes to olives, I try to avoid anything that is too overwhelming as they can overpower the dish. I also don’t recommend going too crazy with capers for the same reason. If you’re one of those “picky” eaters who doesn’t like anchovies, then you should try starving yourself for as long as it takes to reconsider.
Bring a pot of water to a boil. You’ll want to add a tablespoon of salt. Don’t forget this or my father will berate you in a thick Staten Island accent that will leave you traumatized well into adulthood.
At this point you should quickly prep all the ingredients. Drain the anchovies, chop the garlic. Finely dice the parsley stems and coarsely chop the leaves. If your olives have pits, crush them with the broad side of your knife then pull the pits out with your hands. If you have whole canned tomatoes, you’ll want to crush them with your hands as well.
In a deep skillet, heat some olive oil under a medium flame. Add garlic, anchovy, chili pepper and parsley stems. Sauté until the garlic starts to golden and the anchovy dissolves into a bubbly paste. From here, add the olives and capers for just a few minutes then deglaze with the tomatoes.
Add the pasta to the boiling water. From here you have about 10 minutes to marry the whole sauce together, so I like to bring the heat up to get the tomatoes at a nice simmer to make sure they’re fully cooked. Keep stirring so they don’t burn at the bottom of the skillet.
This is where you’re most likely to fuck up your dish, so it is very important you do these two things. First, ladle 3/4 cup of the pasta water into the sauce so it sticks to the spaghetti. Second, While transferring the cooked spaghetti into the skillet, make sure you don’t add too much. It’s really easy to overwhelm the skillet and once you’ve put it in there’s no going back.
Once the cooked spaghetti is in your sauce, add half the grated cheese and the remaining parsley to the dish and mix together. Serve with more cheese, red chili flakes and a drizzle of fresh olive oil. Take in a deep breath of the erotic aroma you have just conjured from your meager cupboard and enjoy.