Pasta alla Puttanesca – or, store-cupboard-supper

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Well, well – it’s been an eventful few weeks here in the Orange Kitchen household, and I’m sorry not to have posted for a while. Last week, we were in Colorado for our first experience of skiing in the States. It was the most wonderful week – made all the more enjoyable because it almost didn’t happen…

We were due to leave Boston on the evening of 8th February – yes, the very same night that mega-storm Nemo rolled into town. Realising the chances of us getting a flight that night were nil, we changed our flight to leave from New York, thinking it might not be hit quite as hard. As it turned out, our Friday night flight from NY was cancelled more than 24hrs before we were due to leave – thankfully, we managed to get a flight to Denver via Chicago first thing on Friday morning, and, disaster averted, had the most amazing week. On the plus side, our holiday started a day early, with a fabulous night in NY with friends – which made the 6.30 departure from JFK the next morning all the more painful…

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Our hurried departure meant that I got half way through a post, meaning to finish it on Thursday before we left, but in all the chaos I didn’t get a chance. That post will follow soon, but for now, here’s a little post about one of my favourite pasta dishes – something delicious, easy, and using ingredients you may well have in the store cupboard.

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Funnily enough, Pasta alla Puttanesca is full of ingredients I really didn’t like until recently – anchovies, capers, and (to a lesser extent) olives. It’s strange how our tastes change – I can remember picking capers out of my mum’s fish pie, which is a really tedious thing to do, but such was my dislike of them that I thought it was worth it… Now, I can’t get enough of them, and use them a lot in my cooking. And while I still wouldn’t eat anchovies straight from the tin, I am a total convert to their use in cooking. They impart a wonderful savoury saltiness which can completely transform a dish – be it puttanesca, my earlier meatball recipe, or roast lamb.

Pasta alla Puttanesca is one of those dishes, along with for instance Spaghetti alla carbonara, where the origins of both name and recipe are murky to say the least. I probably don’t need to tell you that ‘puttanesca’ is Italian for, ahem, lady of the night – but the reasoning behind the pasta dish being thus named is vague. According to Delia Smith, ‘presumably the sauce has adopted this name because it’s hot, strong and gutsy’, and Angela Hartnett’s theory is that ‘it takes as long to cook the dish as it does the lady to take care of her clients’… As for the dish’s origins, many recipes suggest that it was born in the South of Italy – mainly because of its strong, hearty flavours. Frankly, when it tastes as good as it does, I can’t say I mind where it’s from!

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Unsurprisingly, there are many different ways to cook puttanesca – this is mine! For me, it has to have anchovies, capers, olives, garlic and chili – and I like the sauce to be fairly thick, and to coat each strand of pasta. My preference is for the sauce to coat the pasta so that there is very little sauce left in the bowl once you’ve eaten the pasta. I always use spaghetti or linguine for this dish, but you can use short pasta such as penne if you prefer.

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Pasta alla Puttanesca
Serves 4

  • 1/2 tbsp olive oil
  • 6-8 anchovy fillets
  • 3 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
  • 1-2 chilis (to taste), de-seeded and finely chopped
  • 2 tbsp capers, drained and rinsed
  • 1 tbsp tomato puree
  • 2 tins chopped tomatoes
  • 1/2 cup pitted black olives, sliced
  • salt & pepper
  • 400g spaghetti

Heat the oil in a medium saucepan over a medium heat. Add the garlic and anchovies, and cook until the garlic is lightly browned and the anchovies have broken down. You are looking for the anchovies to become a paste in the pan with the oil, with no large pieces of fish. Stir in the capers and chilis, and cook for another minute, before stirring in the tomato puree. Allow to cook for another minute or two, and then add the tinned tomatoes. Stir in the chopped olives, and season well with pepper and a little salt – taste as you go when adding the salt as the anchovies, capers and olives are all salty. Allow to cook, uncovered, over a medium-low heat, until the sauce has reduced and thickened.

Cook the spaghetti in a large pan of salted water according to packet instructions, until al dente. Before draining, add a spoonful or two of the pasta water to the sauce and stir through. Drain the pasta, and return to the pan. Stir the sauce into the pasta so that it coats every strand, and serve!

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