Originally published on Refinery29.com. Photos by Alex Brook Lynn, copyright protected.
After a long day at work, then evening classes or a gym session, the last thing you’re about to do is whip up a gourmet three-course meal. More likely, your fingertips are on the food delivery app on your phone – meaning, you’ll spend at least twenty bucks, just for one dinner.
There is one recipe you need to know about, with ingredients you can always have on hand. You can whip it up at 11pm on a random night when you need something salty, delicious — and which takes no longer than twenty minutes.
Pasta puttanesca is a dish of southern Italy, and it’s basically anchovy paste, capers, olives, a little tomato, and spaghetti. The word “puttanesca” is derived from the Italian for “whore.” Personally, I find myself smiling a little bit when I’m making pasta puttanesca at 11am in my undies, sipping a cold glass of white wine, thinking that I’m making whore’s pasta. Maybe we could say that the contemporary version of the dish is basically the working girl’s pasta. If you want, you can sing “She works hard for the money,” while stirring the saucepan.
There is a little bit of debate as to where exactly pasta puttanesca comes from, and how the name came about. I asked Keith Beavers, owner of the East Village, NYC Italian restaurant In Vino, to help me figure it out.
“Originally, it’s said to be named that way because the ladies of the night would get off very late, and they only had a few ingredients in their kitchen, so they threw together whatever they could find,” is what Keith told me. In other words, pasta puttanesca just refers to ingredients hastily thrown together – whatever you’ve got in the pantry. Olives, capers, anchovies, tomatoes, are all commonly found in Southern Italian pantries. And they should be in yours!
I started making pasta puttanesca recently because I moved into an apartment with a teeny tiny kitchen, which isn’t ideal for more elaborate dishes. It has quickly become my favorite weeknight dish, and once you’ve made it you won’t really need a recipe because it’s that easy.
Here is my personal rendition of pasta puttanesca. I recommend enjoying a glass of dry, nutty white wine from Southern Italy along with the meal. Actually, whites from Italy are pretty much some of the best values you can find out there. Southern Italian whites I love include Falanghina, Greco, Fiano, and Vermentino. Feeling into red? Try Aglianico, one of Southern Italy’s prettiest and earthiest red grapes, and also a good value.
Serves one working girl
1 bag spaghetti or bucatini
3-4 Tbs. olive oil
2-3 Tbs. anchovy paste
2-3 Tbs. tomato paste
Black olives without pits, roughly chopped
1 little jar anchovies (optional but recommended)
Red pepper flakes
Freshly ground black pepper
Boil a large pot of salted water for the pasta. Meanwhile, start the sauce.
First, heat up olive oil in a non-stick saucepan or a cast iron skillet. When the oil is hot, add the capers and olives. Stir them for one minute with a wooden spoon.
Add in the anchovy paste and tomato paste one after the other, and whisk it all together so the ingredients combine. If you are using anchovies, add them here.
Keep adding in tiny teaspoons of the tomato paste and whisking the sauce.
When the water boils, add however much pasta you want for yourself (1/3 of the package is good in proportion to the sauce). Now, this is very important: you need to make sure not to overcook the pasta, because you’re going to let it finish cooking in the sauce. So, if the package says 11 minutes, give it only 9. Use a timer! No overcooked pasta!
Use tongs to lift the pasta out of the water – don’t toss the water yet – letting the pasta air dry for a moment, before dropping it directly into the sauce. Cover the dish and let the pasta fry in the sauce for one minute. Uncover, add about ½ cup of the pasta water, stir, and cover again.
Last steps: sprinkle red pepper flakes. Twirl it all into a pretty pile on your plate and enjoy!