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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A Dud?

I can’t, in good conscience, call this recipe a dud.  I can’t call it a success either.  I almost bagged the post, throwing it in the trash along with the leftover salad.  But, after thinking it over, I realized that the dudliness of this Thai-inspired cantaloupe salad was based on a lot of variables.

First of all, when I was planning dinner for Tuesday night, I (silly me) forgot to decide upon (or shop for) the main dish part of the meal to which this would be a side.  I don’t know, maybe I was figuring that a cantaloupe salad would be enough to satisfy Jim’s and my anxious and hungry stomachs after a long day of work.  Maybe I thought that we had miraculously turned into starving waifs, though I can’t make out anything “Mary-Kate Olsen” about me when I look in the mirror, and once I got home and began to prepare dinner, Jim knocked me (metaphorically) upside the head and decided to go out for some sandwiches to compliment my pretty, but not so satisfying salad.  I forgot to explain the salad’s flavors to him—sweet, spicy, umami, and he came home with steak and provolone on brioche; sandwiches that were undeniably tasty, but did not at all go with my creation.

Secondly, jalapeno is one of the ingredients.  If you work with jalapeno often, you know that every one differs from the next.  Kind of like a snowflake, but it burns your tongue instead of cooling it.

The jalapeno that I used was searing.  It completely overwhelmed the subtle basil flavor and heightened the sweetness to cloying.  I had to add some heavy cream to cut the heat but after a few very tasty, nuanced bites, the spicy-factor overwhelmed the cream and it became too hot again.

And finally, since I had burned my fingers dicing the jalapeno (I will remember to by gloves, I will) and then burned my eyes when I rubbed my fingers in them (yes, I am that stupid) I wasn’t in the mood for any more spiciness.  I stopped eating after a bite or two and declared the recipe a dud.

But it would be silly to think that.  Just because I wasn’t feeling it, doesn’t mean you won’t.  Maybe my spicy-tolerance is way lower than I thought and I really am a weeny.  Maybe you’ll get your hands on a mellower jalapeno.  I did have a few wonderfully complex bites and if the spiciness factor was decreased I’m sure that complexity would shine.  An ya’know, it comes from The Splendid Table, and Lynn Rossetto Kasper’s never let me down before.

So I urge you to go ahead and try this recipe while cantaloupes are still ripe and good.  If I try it again, it’ll be with a char-grilled steak or burger or with some crispy-skinned salmon.  Just don’t rub your eyes after dicing the jalapeno!!

Thai Cantaloupe Salad with Chile

from The Splendid Table’s How to Eat Supper

serves 8

  • 1 medium to large ripe, fragrant cantaloupe, peeled, seeded, and cut into bite-sized chunks
  • 1 tablespoon fine-diced seeded green jalapeno
  • 1/2 cup stacked and thin-sliced fresh Thai, Cinnamon, Spicy Globe, or regular basil leaves*
  • 3 to 4 tablespoons fresh lime juice
  • 2 drops Asian fish sauce
  • Generous pinch of sugar
  • Salt and pepper

In a mixing bowl, gently combine the melon, jalapeno, and basil.  One at a time, add the remaining ingredients, tasting as you add each one.  Set out in a bowl with long bamboo skewers so diners can spear chuncks of melon to eat.

*I used regular, but imagine Thai would make things even more complex.

You can also satisfy your fruitiness with:

Watercress & Mango Salad

Peach Puff Pastry Pizza

Indian summers and spicy shrimp.

I meant to show you this recipe before Labor Day but life, as it so frequently does, got in the way.  I went out with friends over the long weekend and got a little lot too hungover to write the post on Monday.

Then, since I work in public education, my summer was over and I went back to school on September 3rd.  The first couple of days were a whirlwind of getting things in order and seeing how much the kids have grown over the summer (some of them seem to be freakishly taller than they were last June) and I never got to post about the spicy, Creole shrimp boil that we had to honor my last weekend of Summer.

But this week, here in New Jersey, has been hotter than the entire month of August and making this summery dinner is still totally appropriate.  It’s the perfect dinner to eat outside with tons of napkins and a cold beer—a great way to languidly soak in every last bit of this hot Indian summer.

If you’ve never made spiced shrimp before, you may be surprised by how much spice goes into the pot—it’s a lot.  But don’t worry, not everything gets absorbed into the shrimp, most is left on the shells once you peel it.  The potatoes however, will be bursting with spiciness (or, to be frank, flaming hot).  If you don’t want them so spiced, you could cook the potatoes first and then add them to the pot later, but I thought they were pretty amazing, especially once they were slathered in the sweet-sour, creamy horseradish sauce.

Enjoy the last few days of this hot weather—and I hope you can stay dry if you’re on the east coast!

Shrimp Boil with Spicy Horseradish Sauce

makes one big pot//from Gourmet, August 2008

  • 1 lemon, quartered
  • 5 tablespoons Creole or Cajun seasoning
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons cayenne, divided
  • 2 Turkish bay leaves or 1 California
  • 4 garlic cloves
  • 8 small boiling potatoes (about 2 inches)
  • 4 ears of corn, shucked and halved
  • 1 1/2 pounds large shrimp in shell
  • 1/3 cup ketchup
  • 1/3 cup mayonnaise
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons bottled horseradish

Squeeze lemon juice into 4 qt water in a 6- to 8-quart pot, then stir in lemon quarters, Creole seasoning, 2 teaspoon cayenne, bay leaves, garlic, potatoes, and 2 tablespoons salt (omit salt if it is the first ingredient in seasoning).

Bring to a boil, then simmer, partially covered, until potatoes are almost tender, 10 to 12 minutes.

Increase heat to high, then add corn and simmer, partially covered, 4 minutes. Stir in shrimp and cook until just cooked through, 2 to 3 minutes.

Meanwhile, stir together ketchup, mayonnaise, horseradish, and remaining 1/2 teaspoon cayenne.

Drain shrimp, potatoes, and corn and serve with sauce.