Chopped Challenge #6: Orzo Puttanesca

Course: entree

Ingredients: orzo pasta, onion, red wine, anchovies

I’ll admit something to you, friends. I… kind of waited to do this challenge until after we got back from our trip on purpose. I knew the ingredients a few weeks before we left, but I couldn’t turn them into an entrée dish I was happy with.

That’s not really because I couldn’t think of anything. I thought of a number of options. They just didn’t feel very creative to me. I mean, what do you make with pasta besides a big bowl of pasta? I couldn’t get past the expected. It didn’t even occur to me, as Nz. pointed out on the FB mystery basket reveal post, to make a cold option, even though I have an awesome orzo-based pasta salad in one of the dozens of cookbooks weighing down my bookshelves.

Finally I decided I had to just do it, creativity be damned. I put off the challenge for a month, school started, weeknights suddenly became off-limits for lengthy kitchen experiments, and I needed to get this challenge done if I was going to continue the project.

A big bowl of pasta it was, then. And my favorite pasta for anchovies and red wine has to be puttanesca, so that seemed like a doable, if not particularly original, solution. I’ve given you a puttanesca recipe before; this new take adds onions to the typical trifecta of garlic, capers, and olives. It amps up the anchovy quotient, making those amazing little salt-bombs the primary seasoning for the sauce and carriers of the dish in their own right, and at the last minute brightens everything with a palmful of lemon zest.

What resulted was satisfying, though we both noted there’s a reason puttanesca is not typically served with orzo. Classic Italian sauces are traditionally paired with particular pasta shapes for a reason, and puttanesca is heavy enough in both texture and flavor that the orzo gets a bit overwhelmed.

Regardless, we were left with a tasty dish that, crucially at this time of year, provided sufficient leftovers to see us well into the week in take-to-work-lunches.

Orzo puttanesca, then, and after that, as Two Brew from William Goldman’s The Color of Light might say, on to the next!


Orzo Puttanesca
30-45 minutes
Serves 8
2 tablespoons olive oil
½ diced onion
4-6 cloves garlic, smashed, peeled, and minced
6-8 anchovy filets
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
¼ cup drained capers
½ cup finely chopped kalamata olives
1 cup red wine
28 ounce can crushed or diced tomatoes
16 ounce package orzo pasta
¼ – ½ cup chopped parsley
¼ cup chopped or chiffonaded fresh basil
zest of one lemon


  • Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onions and garlic together and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions have softened and become translucent. The objective is not to brown them; if browning starts to occur, turn the heat down.
  • When the onions have tenderized and the mixture smells fragrant, add the anchovies. Use a flat-sided spatula (I like my wooden one) to smash and crush the filets into bits, which will eventually melt in with the vegetables and oil.
  • Once the anchovies are broken down, stir in the red pepper flakes, the capers, and the olives, then add the wine and cook on medium high heat for 2-3 minutes, just to start the wine reducing.
  • Add the canned tomatoes, bring to a simmer, then turn the heat down to medium low and simmer at least 20 minutes, preferably more like 30, stirring occasionally.
  • While the sauce is simmering, cook the orzo in boiling salted water about 1 minute less than what the package suggests. Just before draining, add about ½ cup of the pasta water to your sauce and stir in.
  • Drain the pasta and add it to the sauce, mixing well to ensure even incorporation. Just before serving, stir in the parsley, basil, and lemon zest. If desired, you can reserve a little bit of each to sprinkle over the top.

Pasta Puttanesca

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.

Food Blog September 2013-2618But 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.

Food Blog September 2013-2613A 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.

Food Blog September 2013-2615Puttanesca 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.

Food Blog September 2013-2622Pasta Puttanesca
Serves 4
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.