Cookery simulates the disguise of medicine, and pretends to know what food is the best for the body; and if the physician and the cook had to enter into a competition in which children were the judges, or men who had no more sense than children, as to which of them best understands the goodness or badness of food, the physician would be starved to death. A flattery I deem this to be and of an ignoble sort...
— Socrates, "Gorgias" by Plato
Pasta puttananesca is a staple of Italian cooking. It is one of those dishes that is so hard to screw up that even a mediocre restaurant can do a passable job. The name "puttananesca" is is derived from the Italian "puttana", literally "whore". (I suspect it is a dish the more prudish eschew entirely or order only by pointing, lest their lips be sullied with the word.) The dish is simple: tomatoes, garlic, anchovies, capers, basil, oregano, and a little olive oil. Some like black olives, cut in half, but I'm not normally a fan of vegetables so indebile they must be first soaked in lye. Others add pignolis — pine nuts — which I find to be a distraction, although I do adore them in spicy Chinese cuisine. But this has nothing to do with the name.
Various stories purport to relate how the dish was named, and each has varying degrees of credibility. One has it that the dish could be quickly prepared by sex workers in between clients. Another is that it's spicy nature inflamed the passions like a lady of sin. Yet another is that the wafting ordor was used to lure in clients, as an appetizer to what was to come. The last one, of a more practical nature, is that the working girls in the state-owned brothels could only do their shopping once a week — to avoid offending the "respectable" women in the marketplace — and needed ingredients that would keep. So which should we believe? Maybe none of them.
Personally, I don't hold with the feeding clients beforehand. As every woman knows, after eating a huge plate of carbs, men fall asleep. Some even snore. But even without the nap and the snoring, there certainly ain't gonna be no carnal activities until that blood sugar spike wears off. (The argument that nobody wants a lover with garlic breath doesn't hold water, because if both parties eat it nobody can smell the wonderous perfume of the allium.) As far as shopping once a week, it makes no sense as one cannot live on sauce and carbs, and Italians always eat a great deal of fresh vegetables. But why ruin a good explanation, especially when it can be delivered with so much poetry:
Legend has it Spaghetti alla Puttanesca, or whore-ish pasta originated from the state run brothels in 1950’s Italy. Unlike most respectable Italian ladies who went out everyday for fresh groceries, these women went out once a week to do their errands. Consequently their larders were stocked with basic ingredients that kept well. Like braids of garlic, cans of salty anchovies olives, boxes of pasta and long-lasting parsley.
Spaghetti alla Puttanesca is a full-on encounter with some willful ingredients. Garlic, capers, black olives, anchovies and parsley make a brash sauce that works by intensity but doesn’t know when to quit. Its scent sashays around well after the meal is over and the dishes are put away. It doesn’t catch on to the polite clues that dinner is over and the day is done. Turn off the kitchen lights and you’ll smell capers, close the curtains - there’s parsley in the folds. Open the closet door and anchovies in olive oil spill out.
Puttanesca loiters. It’s the morning breath of stale garlic and oily olives. It’s last night’s mini dress in high heels greeting you while you’re still in your pajamas having a cuppa-joe. Fresh newsprint, toast and eggs don’t stand a chance. It needs a swift kick in the ass but the only thing you can do to escape and clear out is open the windows and rinse with Listerine. It’ll eventually go. And when it’s gone - you’ll want it back. It’s that good. Regardless of its virtue or vice - Puttanesca is quick and dirty, unforgettable and persistent."Spaghetti alla Puttanesca", by Ali Berlow, A Cook's Notebook, WCAI broadcast, 5 March 5 2003
It's an easy dish to make. (Yes, you could just buy pre-made puttanesca in a jar, but it is so easy to make, and so much tastier when made so that the capers and basil haven't been cooked into oblivion, that there's no reason not to make it yourself.) Now I suppose should regale you with tales of cooking down whole tomatoes from those huge tins of the imported Italian whole variety, slaving over a hot stove like some widowed Italian grandmother in black, but I won't. I'm a busy lad so I don't cook my sauce from scratch. Shocking, yes, but true. Instead, I start with a good marinara base — usually either Rao's or Patsy's — and add anchovies, capers, fresh basil and fresh oregano. (What, you don't have basil and oregano plants on your windowsill? And you didn't have the forsight during the summer to wash, dry, and wrap individual portions of basil and oregano in plastic wrap so you could pop them into your freezer until needed? That's sooooo sad! What kind of chef are you?) Some add sun-dried tomatoes — chopped fine so they disperse evenly, giving an extra tomatoey burst of flavor — or fire-roasted pappers.
Cook the anchovies in, so that they disintegrate completely, then, when you're close to being done, add the basil and oregano, and add the capers a few minutes before you serve the dish, so that they get cooked but don't get mushy or lose their flavor. Smaller capers are tastier, but cost a little more. (Takes more of them to make a pound. Don't save your pennies here, though. The cost differential is a dollar or so per bottle, and you'll get a few meals from each jar.) If you have fresh basil leaves, garnish each plate with a few of those. Put it over a pasta with lots of nooks and crannies to hold the sauce, like rotelli or fusilli. But you can also use tortellini, ravioli, or just about any other pasta. (Even the lowly linguini.)
Mmmmm. Now I've gone and made myself hungry. Except I don't eat pasta much anymore. (Pastry, pie, and muffins are a much tastier way to get one's carbs.) But the sauce is also excellent over fish.
Regardless of its virtue or vice - Puttanesca is quick and dirty, unforgettable and persistent.