Posted by: A Part of the Solution | January 15, 2011

Pasta Puttanesca

With wholegrain carbs safe for democracy once again, I’m ready to contribute my little mite to the discourse. When you’ve got whole grains in play, you’ve got a richer, stronger flavor base to work with in constructing a nourishing, satisfying dinner. Pasta Puttanesca is one sure-fire answer to the conundrum of what to pour over the pasta to make those whole grains sing, dance and fill you with delight.

Pasta Puttanesca is a pasta sauce thought to have originated in the city of Naples. While it’s formal history in cook books is relatively short (1961 being the earliest citation), that may be all to the good for modern cooks. Pasta Puttanesca uses few ingredients, all of them  considered pantry staples in the kitchens of today, and it doesn’t take long to cook. Pasta Puttanesca really works as a cold weather dish, especially because it doesn’t depend on seasonal heirloom-varietal produce at its peak.

My version of Pasta Puttanesca is true to the Neapolitan origins of the sugo, in that mine doesn’t use anchovies. I leave them out not for authenticity’s sake, but because I don’t really like them–and so don’t have them stocked to my pantry. If you have a palate for salt, please feel free to include rinsed, chopped anchovy filets–not more than six, or you could double or triple the number of olives. Please use olives of good quality, ie not from a can, if you’re going to go that route.

Pasta Puttanesca

2 TBSP olive oil

2 large onions, chopped

1 bulb garlic, stripped of papers, germed (pull the green sprout from the center of each clove of garlic and save it for the stock scraps bag you have in your freezer) and chopped

1/4-1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes

2 TBSP tomato paste

1/4 cup red wine (optional)

1 large can (28 oz or so) of crushed tomatoes, or canned whole tomatoes chopped–juices saved to include in the sauce

10 black olives, slivered

2 TBSP capers, rinsed and drained and half coarsely chopped

1 1/2 oz finely grated hard Italian cheese (optional)

In a large, heavy bottomed pan (non-reactive metals are best here, enamel on cast iron, stainless steel, anodized aluminum) heat the olive oil over a moderate flame. When the oil is hot, add the onions and let them cook for ten or fifteen minutes, stirring only once or twice. Now add the garlic and red pepper flakes. After a minute or two, add the tomato paste and red wine (if using). The paste should darken and the red wine be nearly bubbled away before you add the tomatoes.

Once the tomatoes are in the pan, lower the heat slightly and let the sauce cook for about fifteen minutes. Now add the olives and let the whole cook for another ten minutes. Turn off the heat and add the capers. Stir the pasta (long goods work here, but so do penne and rigatoni) into the sauce and let it soak up the flavor for a minute or two.

Serve with the optional grated cheese if desired. This dish pairs nicely with a chianti or rioja, if you want a glass of wine with your quick, delicious dinner.



  1. But you left out the best part of the history (which I know you know because you told it to me) about the translation and why it’s called that….

    • Pasta Puttanesca translates to Whore’s Pasta. The story goes that working girls had Sundays and half-days on Wednesdays. But most Italian cooking focuses on super-fresh or ultra-slow preparation methods and are too market dependent to work for someone who might routinely sleep until markets were closed. On Tuesdays, dinner at the houses of ill repute was said to be concocted of shelf-stable pantry staples because they were what would keep from one market day to the next–onions and garlic not being quick to go off. Hence Pasta Puttanesca was the classical dish on Tuesdays in whore houses on the west slope of the Apennines.

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