At about age fourteen, I stopped being able to eat much tomato sauce. There was something about the combination of sugar and acidity in processed pasta or pizza sauce that left my stomach roiling uncomfortably and my taste buds dissatisfied. This made some dinners difficult: pizza had to be dissected, scraped mostly dry, and put back together. Spaghetti with marinara and meatballs was a thing of the past. Lasagna was off the menu. In many ways this was a good thing, because it introduced me to novelties like pesto and alfredo and, when they became popular, white pizza and fresh pasta sauce. To this day, I’d rather have my pizza crust drizzled with olive oil and rubbed with fresh garlic than drenched in tomato sauce. I rarely miss it because the alternatives taste so much better.
But sometimes you just want the tang of tomato with your pasta. Since the processed option was out of bounds (and really, I don’t use many pre-prepared items like that anymore anyway), I decided I’d have to make my own. I’m not sure what it says about me that my entrée back into the pasta-with-red-sauce scene was spaghetti alla puttanesca, which translates charmingly to whore’s style spaghetti, but there it is. Olives, capers, obscene quantities of garlic, anchovy paste, red pepper flakes, all cooked down with diced tomatoes into a robust, aromatic sauce. It’s my favorite red sauce these days, and since all of the ingredients are basically pantry staples, I usually have the supplies to make this at a moment’s notice.
A number of stories make up puttanesca’s history. It is attributed to Naples, and though it was probably invented in the mid 20th century as a use-what-you-have kind of dish, its colorful name has spawned a variety of other origin stories. In one version, this briny, sharp, attention-getting sauce was cooked in brothels near the docks, and the smell was so strong that it attracted customers, who came looking for a bite to eat and left having paid for something more. By extension, the aroma of the sauce gave these sad customers away to their wives, who knew by the smell of the ingredients where their husbands had been. Some versions of the story twist this around, attributing its invention to these anxious wives, who hoped the savory aroma would lure their husbands back home.
Puttanesca is typically a topping for spaghetti, but here I used gemelli – the delightfully chewy, subtly DNA-shaped twirls – because I like how much closer in size they are to the other ingredients. The texture thrills me as well and, if we’re honest, it’s easier to avoid the dangerous splatter of tomato sauce on my favorite tank top when I’m dealing with, well, basically anything but long fickle strands of spaghetti. My version also includes red wine, which I use to deglaze the pan after lightly, lightly browning the garlic with the anchovy and capers, and some sundried tomatoes for a bit of extra tang. You can add whatever combination of dried herbs you like – basil and oregano are both delicious – although oregano is probably the most traditional.
2 tablespoons olive oil
6-8 cloves garlic, finely minced
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
2 teaspoons anchovy paste, or 2-3 anchovy fillets
2 tablespoons capers
¼ cup kalamata olives, roughly chopped if you like, or left whole
¼ cup sundried tomatoes, drained and roughly chopped
½ cup dry red wine
14.5 ounce can diced tomatoes
½ teaspoon dried basil or oregano
12 ounces dry pasta; we like gemelli, but spaghetti is more traditional for this sauce
Water and salt for the pasta
¼ cup chopped parsley
- Add olive oil and garlic to a cold pan. Turn the heat on to medium, and slowly warm the oil and garlic together. This will flavor the oil and cook the garlic gently, so it doesn’t burn or become bitter.
- When the garlic is dancing a bit in the warm oil, add the red pepper flakes, anchovy paste or anchovy fillets, capers, olives, and sundried tomatoes. Stir gently with a flat-bladed wooden spoon.
- At this point, your garlic should be golden. Add the red wine all at once. It will sizzle madly. Use your flat-bladed spoon to scrape any bits that have adhered to the bottom of the pan back into the sauce you are now creating. This is deglazing the pan, and it adds incredible flavor.
- Simmer for 5 minutes, to let some of the alcohol flavor cook out of the wine.
- After 5 minutes, the quantity of wine will have reduced a bit, and the smell will be amazing. Add the diced tomatoes and the dried herbs and turn the heat down to medium-low.
- Simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally and gently.
- While the sauce is simmering, cook pasta of your choice in salted water until just al dente.
- When the pasta still has a slight bite to it, drain it, then add it to your sauce and stir or spoon it around gently to evenly distribute it through the sauce. Cook pasta and sauce together for 1-2 minutes.
- Add parsley and serve. We like ours with a loaf of good bread, sometimes toasted, sometimes anxiously torn into pieces, to mop up any lingering sauce.