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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Brown Butter Soda Bread

I had planned to bring with me today an authentic Irish Soda Bread. I had done some research.  I could’ve told you that soda bread first appeared in Ireland in the 19th century, when baking soda was invented; that caraway seeds are strictly optional; that raisins make traditional Irish Soda Bread more Americanized; that sometimes, when raisins are added, the bread is called “Spotted Dog”; and that the cross you slash into the bread before baking is really less of a religious symbol than a handy outline for portioning the loaf once it’s baked.

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But at some point, deep in my research, I came across Brown Butter Soda Bread. Now.  Brown butter can stop me in my tracks, but when I clicked the link and read the recipe—Rosemary! Black Pepper! Oats!—I remembered the complicated relationship I’d had with Irish Soda Bread as a child, loving the taste but also being just the tiniest bit disgusted by the combination of raisins and caraway. Maybe I overdid it one time and swore I would never eat Irish soda bread again or something; not that I remember anything like that ever happening…

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But I’m getting away with myself. I said Rosemary! Black Pepper! Oats! and left you in the lurch. I’m sorry. Back to the bread. It’s got the fluffy, moist, biscuit-like texture that soda bread is known for. It’s a snap to put together, like all soda breads. And, unlike the raisin and caraway version (which is more of a breakfast or tea bread), it can easily stand up to dinner.

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The rosemary flavor is subtle, but the fragrance wafts from the loaf as you break it apart, inviting you—No, when you smell this rosemary, buttermilk scented bread, it demands you dig in; it holds you hostage, helpless, because it knows you have no power to resist.

Then there’s the black pepper. If you’re not a fan of the spice, you could always reduce the amount, or omit it altogether, and I think you’d still have a great bread; but to me, the black pepper is icing on the cake. A heaping spoonful to the dough, plus a sprinkling on top, provides heat throughout, allowing every bite a peppery pop. With the proper Irish “lashing” of good butter slathered onto each slice, it’s the perfect combination of rich and spicy.

I may make another soda bread for St. Patrick’s Day this year, one that’s more authentic, sans rosemary, oats, and pepper (though I’ll probably be the American that I am and add raisins), but this will be the soda bread that I continue to bake all year long. I’ll bet you do too.

brown butter soda bread

Rosemary Brown Butter Soda Bread

from Bon Appétit, February 2006

makes 2 loaves

1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter

3 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1/2 cup old-fashioned oats
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon ground black pepper plus additional for topping
1 3/4 cups buttermilk

1 egg white, beaten to blend

Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 375°F. Stir butter in heavy small saucepan over medium heat until melted and golden brown, about 3 minutes. Remove from heat.

Stir flour, oats, sugar, rosemary, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and 3/4 teaspoon pepper in large bowl to blend. Pour buttermilk and melted browned butter over flour mixture; stir with fork until flour mixture is moistened.

Turn dough out onto floured work surface. Knead gently until dough comes together, about 7 turns. Divide in half. Shape each half into ball; flatten each into 6-inch round. Place rounds on ungreased baking sheet, spacing 5 inches apart. Brush tops with beaten egg white. Sprinkle lightly with ground black pepper. Using small sharp knife, cut 1/2-inch-deep X in top of each dough round.

Bake breads until deep golden brown and tester inserted into center comes out clean, about 45 minutes. Cool breads on rack at least 30 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Baker’s Wisdom:
You’ll get the most tender soda bread by kneading the dough gently and briefly, just until it comes together, so the gluten is minimally developed.

Printable Recipe