Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Celluloid + Paper Recipe Series: Puttanesca

I came out of the movie The Last Samurai embarrassingly choked up at yet another lame major studio production (stupid Ken Watanabe and his cherry blossoms!), but also with a serious craving for some fresh sashimi.  Reading Cold Mountain left me hankerin' for some good corn pone and beans (and I didn't really even know exactly what 'pone' was at the time, I just knew it sounded kind of delicious and they couldn't get enough of it around there apparently), while Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events had me running out to the store for the ingredients for my own sugo alla puttanesca.  What can I say - my tummy is highly suggestible.  Obviously it's not alone, however, or millions of ad dollars wouldn't pay for towering flame-broiled burgers to whiz past your TV screen at every commercial break as you're TIVO-ing ahead to The Office.

It's these cravings that have led me to start exploring the food I watch and read about... mostly because I'm tired of the soggy, drool-covered pages in my copy of Like Water For Chocolate.  Unlike Water For Chocolate, however, movies and books rarely spend the time to hand you recipes and instructions for making the food in them.  Therefore, I've been forced to figure it out on my own.  I think of this as a sort of wine and cheese pairing: a recipe to make and enjoy watching your movie, or read about the actual food you have bubbling on the stove next to you on a chilly Fall evening.  It's like taste-o-vision, or 3-D reading.

Artist's very accurate rendition of the origins of Pasta Puttanesca

I picked Pasta Puttanesca as my first recipe because it's one of my favorite dishes and Lemony Snicket one of my favorite movies (I can't speak for the books, sorry).  Another really good reason?  Claus remarks to Violet in the movie: "Pasta Puttanesca... that's Italian for very few ingredients, you know."  Not exactly... it actually means "whore's pasta".  Yeah.  There's obviously a story to that... the most popular being that prostitutes in the 1950s (when the name was coined) were only allowed one day a week to shop for their groceries so they made their sauce with whatever was in the pantry - jarred olives and capers being two of those.  Another theory is that because the houses of prostitution at the time were state run, they were required to keep their windows and doors shuttered to avoid exposing the public to the vices within.  Therefore, the girls would cook a signature and pungent sauce that would attract customers to the door. Either way, it is the best name for a pasta sauce on planet.

Some recipes for Puttanesca will call for anchovies.  I have opted, instead, for the more people-friendly (and less hairy) artichoke hearts.  Frozen work best as they don't disintegrate or have any citric acid from canning to make them too tart with all rest of the vinegary things.  You can find them at Trader Joe's and plenty of the "super" variety of markets.  The artichokes give the sauce a rich, almost "meaty" flavor.  The sauce takes a little prep time, as it has fresh, canned whole, and paste tomatoes but it is worth it.  The varieties give the sauce depth and balances the consistency.  If you want the Lemony Snicket feel, go get the mix of pasta varieties I mention - it'll look like it was pulled straight from the rusty tool drawer (for once that's a good thing!).

Celluloid + Paper Recipe: Pasta Puttanesca


Hands on prep time: 20 mins
Total cook time: 1 1/2 hrs
Special tools: large heavy bottom stock pot or similar, a hand blender, food processor or potato masher

What to get for the sauce

1 28 oz can of whole stewed tomatoes
1 6 oz can tomato paste
4 medium vine-ripened tomatoes (or best available - usually Romas)
8 oz frozen artichoke hearts
2/3 cup Italian green & black olives - mixed (buy the good ones and pit them yourself, it's worth it)
1/2 cup capers
1/2 cup sweet Marsala wine (or any sweet red wine)
1 handful of fresh sweet basil, chopped
4 medium shallots - diced
1 head of garlic
1 small wedge of Parmisiano-Reggiano rind (available at Italian food markets and sometimes TJ's; you can use 1/2 cup of shredded good parm if you can't find this)
Salt & pepper
Red pepper flakes (to taste)
Olive oil

What to get for the pasta - Fusilli col  buco (long corkscrews), rotini, spaghetti, bowties, etc.

What to do with it all

 Turn oven to 350 degrees and cut the top off of your garlic bulb so that the cloves are exposed.  Drizzle on olive oil and wrap loosely in tin foil.  Toss into oven and roast until soft while you prep and cook your sauce (about 45 mins).  Add olive oil, shallots and frozen artichoke hearts to your large pot and cook on medium-low for 10 mins.  While that's cooking, prep your stewed tomatoes by removing seeds of each tomato and dicing - set aside.  Pour the Marsala wine into the pot to "deglaze", add your diced stewed tomatoes, can of tomato paste, Parmesan rind, salt & pepper and stir (if you are using shredded parm, wait until the end when all of the rest of the ingredients are added).  Cook on a very low bubble, covered, for 45 minutes (add more Marsala wine or water if it looks too thick).  While this is cooking, prep your fresh tomatoes by starting a medium pan of water boiling and adding ice water to a medium bowl.  Once it reaches a roiling boil, drop in one tomato and let boil for 1 min.  Then remove and place into ice bath.  This will make removing the skin easy.  Repeat for each tomato and then dice, removing seeds, and set the tomatoes aside. After the sauce has been simmering for 45 mins, remove garlic from oven and squeeze the cloves out into sauce.  Add the rest of the ingredients, plus more salt and pepper.  Cook for another 15 mins and then remove cheese rind and pulse the sauce on low with a hand blender until it's got a nice "light chunky" consistency.  You can also ladle into a food processor or mash with a hand potato masher.  You can add more whole capers, diced olives, and drizzle a little more olive oil at this point and let cool.

Makes approx. 3 standard spaghetti sauce jars worth of sauce.


Pasta Puttanesca on Foodista


  1. Damn, I need me some whore's pasta. Ha. Loving the lil snippets of info! Oh and you can give me artichokes instead of anchovies any day! :D

  2. Ok, I finally made this sauce. Admittedly, I cheated on the tomatoes -- no seeding or skinning (gasp!) -- but it still tastes delicious. I've used this for at least 3 pasta dishes, and there is still some left for a 4th dinner.


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