Just about every time I make a pasta sauce without a recipe, it turns into some form of puttanesca. I can’t seem to help it. Some nights, it’s a little chunkier, some a little smoother. An extra shake or two of the jar of crushed red pepper flakes, and it’s spicier. With green olives and basil, it’s a touch lighter and more herbaceous. With oil-cured olives and parsley, a bit earthier.
That’s the beautiful thing about back-pocket pasta dishes: You can return to them, time and again, and make them your own.
I think of puttanesca as Italy’s ultimate simple, pantry-friendly sauce. The name famously refers to prostitutes, with stories (most of them seemingly debunked by historians) attributing the connection to the fact that the dish was quick to make between clients, or so aromatic it helped prostitutes attract them.
The key to making the dish is to not be afraid of its pungency and spice. I like to throw in a full half cup of olives and a quarter-cup of capers, and anything less than a teaspoon of crushed red pepper flakes is too timid for my taste. I don’t use the traditional anchovy anymore, but I do sometimes add canned beans, garbanzos or cannellini, for their heartiness and protein. They’re pantry staples, so in my book they fit the spirit of puttanesca.
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Salt-packed capers are more flavorful than brined, but if you use brined, just drain them without soaking.
From Food and Dining editor Joe Yonan.
½ teaspoon kosher salt, plus more as needed
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1¾ cups cooked or no-salt-added canned cannellini beans, drained and rinsed (from one 14.5-ounce can)
One 28-ounce can pureed or crushed tomatoes
½ cup pitted oil-packed black olives, chopped (may substitute Kalamata olives)
¼ cup salt-packed capers, soaked in warm water for at least 15 minutes and drained (see headnote)
¼ cup lightly packed fresh parsley leaves, chopped, plus more for garnish
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 pound dried spaghetti
Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat, add a generous pinch of salt and then reduce the heat to low. Cover to keep it hot while you make the sauce.
Pour the oil into a large, deep skillet or Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add the onion and garlic; cook for 6 to 8 minutes, stirring frequently, until softened. Stir in the ½ teaspoon salt, black pepper and crushed red pepper flakes; cook until fragrant, for 30 seconds.
Stir in the cannellini beans, tomatoes, olives and the drained capers. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to low, cover and cook for 15 minutes, until the sauce darkens, thickens and the flavors meld. Stir in the parsley and lemon juice; taste and add more salt, as needed. Keep covered over the lowest heat setting.
While the sauce is cooking, increase the heat under the large pot of salted water so it returns to a boil, then add the spaghetti. Cook according to the package directions, until al dente.
Drain, toss with the sauce and serve right away. Garnish each portion with more parsley.
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