Pasta Puttanesca

In high school, I made pasta puttanesca for the first time. My teacher gave us a take-home assignment to cook an authentic Italian dish, and my team drew the puttanesca. All I really remember about the assignment was the name “Pasta Puttanesca” and just how funny it was, and the horrendous idea that we would have to eat capers (yuck!) and olives (double yuck!) and anchovies (too disgusting even to think about). I actually thought it turned out pretty good, though I imagine if I had to eat a meal prepared by three high school kids with no cooking experience, you might hear a few double yucks from me now.

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I haven’t made pasta puttanesca since high school, but every time I’ve thought about it since then I’ve laughed — “Whore’s Pasta!” — gufaww! I’m laughing now. I guess jokes from your childhood have a way of making you smile. I find the name so funny that it was actually hard to cook it. I made joke after joke to Jim, who didn’t find them as funny as I did, and I even called a bunch of people to tell them I was making pasta puttanesca, hardy har har. I’m obviously regressing in leaps and bounds.

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But if reverting to a fourteen-year-old is the price for pasta puttanesca, I’ll pay it. Capers, olives, and anchovies all seem so delicious now; briny, oily, fishy — the stuff of my dreams! I’m rather ashamed of my 14-year-old self, sticking out my tongue at those lovely ingredients. And the name, whore’s pasta or street-walker’s pasta, or whatever it actually translates to in Italian, only adds to the greatness of the dish, adding a little sex to the tomatoes and chilies and big fat shrimp.

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To make a pasta puttanesca special, parsley is key. Use lots and lots of it. It’ll be the foil to the spice, the fish flavor, and the sweet tomatoes. Parsley brings it all together.

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I’ve heard that people don’t traditionally put cheese on their puttanesca, so we tried it without first. But a good block of parmigianno was in my fridge, and a load of pasta on my plate, and the combination proved too hard to resist. And I don’t really know why you wouldn’t want cheese in there; it was delicious melding with the spices, coating the shrimp. A good glug of olive oil on top won’t hurt, either.

big bowl o' pasta

Spaghetti alla Puttanesca

adapted from Patricia Wells’ Trattoria cookbook (a lovely cookbook, indeed)

serves 6

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
4 flat anchovy fillets cured in olive oil, minced
3 plump fresh garlic cloves, minced
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes, or to taste
sea salt
1 (28-ounce) can Italian plum tomatoes in juice
15 salt-cured black olives, such as Italian Gaeta or French Nyons, pitted and halved
2 tablespoons capers, drained and rinsed
1 pound dried Italian imported spaghetti
1 cup flat leaf Italian parsley, coarsely chopped.
1/2 to 1 pound big, fat shrimp, peeled and deveined

In an unheated skillet large enough to hold the pasta later on, combine the oil, anchovies, garlic, crushed red peppers, and a pinch of salt, stirring to coat with the oil. Cook over moderate heat just until the garlic turns golden but does not brown, 2 to 3 minutes. Pour out a little of the juice from the can of tomatoes, maybe about half, then add the tomatoes with reserved juice into the pan, breaking up the tomatoes with a wooden spoon. Add the olives and capers. Stir to blend, and simmer, uncovered, until the sauce begins to thicken, about 15 minutes. Taste for seasoning.

Meanwhile, in a large pot bring 6 quarts of water to a rolling boil. Add 3 tablespoons of salt and the spaghetti, stirring to prevent the pasta from sticking. Cook until tender but firm to the bite. Drain.

Add the drained pasta to skillet with the sauce. Season the shrimp with salt and pepper and add the shrimp to the pasta and sauce. Toss, then tuck the shrimp into the pasta and let it cook for 2-3 minutes, or until the shrimp is mostly done. Turn off the heat and let the sauce absorb into the pasta for another minute or so.  Add the parsley and toss. Serve immediately, passing parmesan cheese and olive oil at the table.

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Linguine with sea urchin sauce and caviar.

Two thousand and ten. I may just be getting old, but that doesn’t seem right.  It seems like, in 2010, we should be zooming around in flying cars.  Or teleporting.  Talking to aliens, at least. When I was a kid, to be honest, I thought we’d all be dead by 2010, though I was always a little pessimistic.  But still, here we are: 2010.  Wow.

A mess

We don’t have flying cars yet (and I never really understood why we wanted them–we have airplanes, no?) and, as far as I know, we haven’t reached any aliens; but I have something that’ll knock those things out of the water: linguine with sea urchin sauce and caviar.  Happy New Year.

Treasure

If you’ve never tried sea urchin, you really must.  (Though go out to a nice restaurant to do it; the smell of uncleaned sea urchin could deter anyone from a first bite.)  To me, the flavor tastes more like the ocean than mussels, with their blue brininess, or even oysters, which run a close second.  Sea urchin smells and tastes ancestral, primitive.  It’s extremely sexy.  Well, once you get past the part where you’ll need to put on thick rubber gloves so as not to stab yourself.

Sea urchin

My first taste of sea urchin was at Nobu Next Door, the first time I took Jim out to dinner.  He had been taking me out a lot, to Cafe Boulud, and Babbo, and Gotham Bar and Grill, spending the money from his book advance, and I wanted to reciprocate.  We drove into the city, showed up at Nobu without reservations, and were directed to their sister restaurant, Next Door.  I told the waitress to bring us whatever she liked.  I struggled with my chopsticks and one ended up on the neighboring table (thankfully, the couple was wonderful, and gently urged me to eat with my fingers.)  I nearly had a heart attack when the check came; I’d been working part-time at Barnes & Noble and finishing my senior year of college, and I think the dinner was close to a whole month’s paycheck.  I walked out with a bit of sticker shock, but as it wore off, I realized that I would have paid that and more, if only for the introduction to sea urchin. I was so in love with the stuff and I’m sure I made a fool of myself at the dinner, goofy-faced and swooning, exclaiming that it tasted like the ocean in a cloud.

Twirl

The next time I tried sea urchin, at a place-that-shall-remain-nameless in the Hamptons, it was decidedly less impressive; the piece was too large, the urchin’s flavor more like the dregs of the sea than the waves.  I hadn’t had it since, until this New Year’s Eve.  I’m happy to report that it was just as good—better!—than the first time.  Parmigiano reggiano and butter compliment the sea urchin’s brininess, a flawless combination that pleasantly surprised me; the fishiness of the caviar brings out the urchin’s sweetness.  The sauce coated each strand of pasta in just the right, silky way (you need good, dried pasta for this; fresh would make the overall texture too soft).  It was easy enough to pull off after a few glasses of champagne, too.

American paddlefish caviar

This year had been one of ups and downs.  The ups have been really high.  The downs, way down.  But as I look back at 2009, I’m amazed at where I am with my cooking, my relationship with Jim, my happiness with myself and the place we live, how much I love this blog.  I feel like things are just getting started.  2010 will be a good year, even without teleportation.

Linguini with sea urchin and caviar

Linguine with Sea Urchin Sauce and Caviar

serves 4, adapted from Eric Ripert’s On the Line

I’m still failing at my mission to find Espelette pepper, so I replaced it with fresh black pepper in this recipe.  I also used American paddlefish caviar instead of Iranian osetra caviar because it’s sustainable and costs a lot less than the upwards of $500 you can spend for the Iranian.  I’ve had both in my lifetime and, especially in a recipe like this, you won’t feel cheated with paddlefish.

The Sea Urchin Sauce

½ cup sea urchin roe (the pink stuff inside)
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted, good quality butter, softened
1 tablespoon water
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper

The Pasta

1 ½ teaspoons thinly sliced chives
1 tablespoon freshly grated parmigiano reggiano cheese
Kosher salt and freshly ground white pepper
½ lemon, or to taste

The Garnish

1 ounce American paddlefish caviar, or to taste

For the sea urchin sauce, puree the sea urchin roe in a blender, scraping down the side with a rubber spatula so that no big pieces remain unblended.  Pass it  through a fine-mesh sieve, and return to the blender.  Blend the puree with the softened butter.

To finish the sauce, bring the water to a boil in a small saucepan.  Gradually whisk in the sea urchin butter, about 1 tablespoon at a time.  Season with salt and pepper and keep warm.

When reader to serve, cook the pasta in a large pot of boiling salted water until al dente; drain.

Put the chives in a medium stainless steel bowl, add the warmed sauce and Parmesan cheese, and mix well.  Season with salt and white pepper if necessary.  Gently toss the pasta with the sauce.

To serve, use a meat fork to twirl one-quarter of the pasta and mound it in the center of a small bowl.  Repeat 3 times.  Drizzle 1 tablespoon of the sauce remaining in the stainless steel bowl around each mound.  Squeeze the lemon juice over the pasta and place 1 ½ teaspoons of the caviar on top of each mound of pasta.  Serve immediately.

Asian supermarket-inspired.

There’s so many things at the Asian supermarket that I can’t find anywhere else.  There’s slender long beans, mounds of my favorite chiles, all the cabbage you could ask for, quail eggs, pork bellies, and chicken feet for stocks—and that’s just the fresh section.  The spice aisle is unbelievably stocked, the pickles are amazing.  Every kind of tea I could wish for.  And the frozen section offers a selection of very good dumplings.

Every time Jim and I go there, we leave happy, laughing, and sated from all the samples.  The prepared foods section is cheap and tasty—with all kinds of snacks to try.  One of our favorites is the barbecued meats.  The goods are on display in a moist-heat glass case; ribs, chicken, and duck for you to bring home chopped up or whole.  Because the meat stays at it’s utmost moistest when bought whole, and because I’m becoming a bit of a snob when it comes to butchering my own poultry, we bought a whole duck—beak and all—and scurried home for an Asian supermarket-inspired pasta.

More and more, I’ve begun taking my cooking cues from the places I shop.  This may be the result of learning more about cooking, or maybe it’s because I moved to a town where I can buy almost everything local from small-farms (as long as I’m always willing to take what I can get), but whatever the reason, it’s been working out pretty great.  We’ve been eating fabulously—grilled whole fish wrapped in bacon, lots of squash, homemade stewing-hen stocks—and many of the meals have been planned organically.  Maybe I’ll have a recipe in mind, read in a magazine lately, or maybe I’ll go completely wild and make the whole thing up, but it often goes that I buy what I see out and then go home and use whatever’s in the pantry to supplement.  This pasta was just that.

We had carrots and garlic and all the makings for an Asian-inspired sauce, so we cut up the duck, blanched some vegetables, boiled some fresh pasta, and threw everything together in a wok.  It was quick and easy but undeniably complex-tasting.  The black vinegar in the pasta’s sauce was punchy (to me it smells like coca-cola) and held up against the rich duck and creamy pasta.  The vegetables made for a full, fresh meal.  Drizzled with sriracha, the lingering heat was warm and comforting against the cold winds knocking about the windows.   We snuggled up and ate our fill, and eagerly began plans for our next trip back to the market.

Asian-style Pasta with Duck

serves 6

For the sauce:

  • 1/4 cup soy sauce
  • 3 tablespoons Chinese black vinegar (preferably Chinkiang)
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons packed dark brown sugar
  • 2 teaspoons Asian sesame oil
  • 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

For the pasta:

  • 1 pound fresh linguine or spaghetti
  • 1 whole barbecued duck, store-bought
  • 1 bunch long beans, cut into 2-inch pieces*
  • 2 cups shanghia pak choy, or baby boy choy, ends cut off and leaves separated
  • 2 carrots, cut into matchsticks
  • 1 bunch scallions, sliced
  • 1 bunch of cilantro, chopped
  • small handful of mint leaves, chopped
  • lime juice and zest, to taste
  • sriracha

Mix all of the sauce ingredients in a small bowl.  Set aside.

Cook the pasta in boiling salted water until tender, 2-5 minutes.

Blanch the carrots and choy in boiling water for 2 minutes, transfer to a plate.  Blanch the long beans in the same water for 3-5 minutes, until tender. Drain.

In a large wok, render the fat from the reserved pieces of duck skin.  Remove the skin and discard.  Add

Take the skin off of the duck breasts and legs, reserving a few pieces.  Tear the meat into bite-sized pieces (this is a messy job, so do it over a large cutting board.) Discard carcass.

Using a few pieces of the duck skin, render the fat in a large wok.  Add vegetables and duck pieces and cook for 1 minute.  Add pasta and sauce and cook for a few more minutes, until everything is fragrant and hot.  Add scallions and cook 1 minute more.

Transfer to a bowl.  Sprinkle with cilantro, mint, and lime zest and juice to taste.  Toss everything together and serve with sriracha.

*You can substitute regular green beans for the long beans.