By Katrina Tulloch
I first read about Pasta Puttanesca in one of my favorite childhood books, “The Bad Beginning” from the The Series of Unfortunate Events. This series was my addiction for two preteen years. I collected 11 of the 13 books in the series, until “The Penultimate Peril” and “The End” came out. They picked the worst possible colors for those book spines and I wasn’t about to spend my allowance on a terrible turquoise/burnt sienna clash. Good design is everything.
So no, I never finished the series. I have no idea what happens to intrepid orphans Violet, Klaus and Sunny Baudelaire. Blake says it’s because I literally judged the books by the covers, but he’s wrong. I judged them by the colors of their book spines and that godawful movie made with Jim Carrey. Carrey himself and the graphic credits were cool, but everything else was not. Try not to judge the story by this depressing YouTube clip.
“The Bad Beginning” begins with Count Olaf reluctantly taking in the orphans and treating them terribly. In an effort to make the Count like them, Violet, Klaus and Sunny whip up dinner for Olaf and his theater troupe. Luckily, Pasta Puttanesca is easy enough for children to make it.
From a street vendor, they purchased olives after tasting several varieties and choosing their favorites. At a pasta store they selected interestingly shaped noodles…Then, at the supermarket, they purchased garlic, which is a sharp-tasting bulbous plant; anchovies, which are small salty fish; capers, which are flower buds from a small shrub and taste marvelous; and tomatoes, which are actually fruits and not vegetables as most people believe…Perhaps, the orphans thought, if they made a delicious meal, Count Olaf might be a bit kinder to them. (The Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicket)
Later I learned Pasta Puttanesca has a fascinating pseudo-history in the boudoirs of Italy.
“Ostensibly a sauce invented and made by prostitutes, it is said that pasta puttanesca was designed to lure customers with its aroma. Other explanations have more appeal to the minimalist cook: that the prostitutes were too busy to cook much, or that they had no storage for fresh ingredients and cooked entirely from the pantry. My favorite legend has it that it was a favorite not of prostitutes, but of women who wanted to serve a quick meal at home in order to move on to other things. Whatever the origin, no better wintertime pasta sauce has come down to us.”
Ingredients, adapted from Mark Bittman
- 1 35-ounce can of Tuttorosso Italian-style peeled plum-shaped tomatoes
- 3 or more cloves garlic, lightly smashed and peeled
- 3 or more anchovy fillets
- 1/2 cup pitted, oil-cured black olives
- 2 tablespoons capers
- Salt, chili powder and berbere (not pepper)
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 pound “interestingly-shaped” pasta (I used both thin spaghetti and rotini)
- Chopped fresh parsley and basil leaves for garnish
1. Bring pot of water to boil and salt it. Warm 2 tablespoons oil with garlic and anchovies in skillet over medium-low heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until garlic is lightly golden and anchovies are brown and melty.
2. Drain tomatoes and crush with fork. Add to skillet with a light sprinkle of berbere. Raise heat to medium-high and cook, stirring occasionally, until tomatoes break down and mixture becomes saucy, about 10 minutes. Stir in olives, capers and chili powder, and continue to simmer.
3. Cook pasta, stirring occasionally, until it is tender. Drain quickly and toss with sauce and remaining tablespoon of oil. The fresh basil is highly recommended, if only to make your kitchen smell like a dream.
The aroma is peppy and sharp, lending credit to the the legend of luring customers. The salty anchovy-caper-olive combination packs a punch, so don’t over-salt without tasting. For extra authenticity, prepare the Baudelaires’ chocolate pudding for dessert.