Night-time tales à la Puttanesca

Chili, Anchovies, & Capers – the essential ingredients
Chili, Anchovies, & Capers – the essential ingredients

There’s something about the end of one of ‘those evenings’. You shouldn’t have gone out, you didn’t mean to go out – certainly not with Him – you’ve drunk far too much and, of course, he’s now back here in your flat saying he’s hungry…

Panic ensues. There’s nothing in the fridge of an edible nature (you’ve been at work all day). There’s plenty to drink, yes, including a bottle of champagne – but nothing that can be turned into a meal. The cheese has gone mouldy and even the bread is stale.

I’m not saying this was a common occurrence… but it has happened a few times in my life! Over the decades, and with several long-term partners/husbands, let me say there were a few interludes, a few in-between times, where (single again or semi-detached), I found myself having to knock up an impromptu meal for an unplanned guest.

My last resort on this occasion was the cupboard in the kitchen which always contained some standbys – tinned tomatoes, a bag of olives, anchovies, a jar of capers, a packet of chilli flakes, and spaghetti.

These are the ingredients for one of my favourite ever pasta dishes – pasta puttanesca. And yet again, on this occasion, it rescued me. Barely half an hour later,  the Man and I sat down to two large bowlfuls of that pungent, spicy pasta dish. Hunger was satisfied, excess alcohol was soaked up, and the rest of the evening lay ahead of us…

Some of the ingredients
Some of the ingredients

Pasta Puttanesca is the perfect dish for late nights and impromptu meals, and its name, ‘Puttanesca’, is redolent of the night, for ‘puttana’ is Italian for a prostitute, and many cookery books and articles make sly references to this being a dish cooked up by the prostitutes of Naples: the most oft-quoted story, [is] that it was a cheap dish the working girls of Naples could knock up from the cupboard between tricks.”

But philologically speaking, the correct term for ‘prostitute’s pasta’ in Italian should be ‘pasta di puttana’, which makes me a little suspicious of this explanation. In the quest for a better explanation of the origins of this dish, I went rummaging in some dictionaries.

The Collins Italian dictionary defines ‘puttanesca’ as an adjective linked directly to the dish: “Spaghetti alla puttanesca – spaghetti in a sauce made from anchovies, black olives, capers and tomatoes.”

Here in France, the French use a similar word ‘putain’ as a swear word or as an exclamation eg. “Putain tu m’as fait peur!” which translates into something in between ‘Damn!’, ‘Shit!’ or ‘Bugger! You frightened me!’ – but of course, the real meaning of ‘putain’ in French is, like the Italian, ‘prostitute’.

So I suspect the naming of the dish has more to do with it being made with the ‘shitty’ bits and pieces left at the back of the cupboard when there’s no fresh food in the house. And this theory seems to be backed up by the best explanation of its origins which comes from an article published by Annarita Cuomo.

According to Cuomo, sugo alla puttanesca (‘sugo‘ meaning sauce) was invented in the 1950s by Ischian jet-setter Sandro Petti, co-owner of Ischia’s famed restaurant and nightspot, the Rancio Fellone. When asked by his friends to cook for them one evening, Petti found his pantry bare. When he told his friends that he had nothing to cook for them, they responded by saying “just make us a ‘puttanata qualsiasi,‘” in other words, “just make us whatever crap.”

Which is somewhat similar to the situation I found myself in late at night when the Man in question was hungry and said he would eat anything!

And because it is made from whatever you’ve got left in your cupboard or lurking in the bottom of the fridge, I think flexibility is called for. If you’ve only got one small tin of tomato purée then make it with that. If there’s only half a jar of capers left, tant pis! If you’ve got an onion somewhere, then add it (but I tend not to).

The idea is to throw what you have in the pan and hope that the end result satisfies. I sometimes make it without the olives; sometimes I add red wine (there’s always the end of a bottle somewhere); sometimes I add the flat-leaf parsley that’s fading away in the jar on the side. What can’t be left out under any circumstances are the anchovies, the capers, and the chilli flakes. And I never measure, just add them as I feel.

So for those late nights when only something strong, pungent and spicy is the answer, just make a ‘puttanata qualsiasi’.

Wine added – to be simmered slowly
Wine added – to be simmered slowly

a large tin of whole tomatoes, chopped small (I do this in the tin with a pair of scissors)
tomato puree – a good squeeze from a tube or half a small can
garlic – 5-6 cloves, peeled and chopped
1 tin of anchovies (I have sometimes added another ½ a tin – and I did this time)
½ a small jar of capers, drained and rinsed – but add more if you like them
dried chilli flakes – a good sprinkling
a good handful or so of black olives (except I didn’t have any – so they’re green!)
red wine – if there’s some open
a heaped teaspoon of sugar – I love that scene in The Godfather where they add the sugar to the spaghetti sauce so quite often add sugar to tomato-based pasta sauces.
olive oil – aim for a small pond of it in the pan
black pepper – but no salt, the anchovies are quite salty enough
herbs if you want – mixed dried herbs, parsley, or basil, or oregano – again a question of taste or leftovers

Beginning to thicken up...
Beginning to thicken up…

Heat the oil in a large flat pan over a low flame and add the garlic, letting it become slightly transparent before adding the chopped tomatoes with the purée, the capers, the olives, the red wine, the anchovies, and the sugar. Bring to a simmer, then stir in any herbs and a good sprinkling of black pepper along with the chilli flakes.

Let it gently simmer without a lid for around 20-25 minutes, giving the occasional stir. You want to end up with a thick unctuous sauce.

Meanwhile, bring a large pan of salted water to the boil and add enough spaghetti or linguine for two people. Cook until ready – for me, I like my pasta cooked properly. I’m with Anna del Conté, one of my favourite Italian cookbook authors who cannot understand why people insist that ‘al dente’ is the Italian norm. Anyway, your choice, but I like my pasta soft and welcoming, ready to soak up all that thick sauce.

Drain the pasta and tip immediately into the pan with the sauce (it’s late at night and you haven’t got time for serving dishes!). Stir round and add more olive oil if you need to. Then serve up into two pasta bowls and enjoy with at least one or two glasses of good red wine!

Footnote: The dish Sandro Petti came up with was then added to the menu of his restaurant, provoking a complaint from the local bishop concerning the name – times have clearly changed!

The finished dish
The finished dish

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