Serious Eats: Recipes

Dinner Tonight: Pasta alla Puttanesca

The lore of Pasta alla Puttanesca, which translates as "Whore's Pasta," varies: some say it refers to the spicy, pungent aroma produced by its ingredients that enticed passing customers; others claim pragmatically that this out-of-the-larder dish was the easiest thing workers could prepare between customers, and cheap to boot. People cook it today because it has a remarkable flavor, is easy, and is made of ingredients easily kept on hand.

A soffrito of garlic, chili flakes, and anchovy sautéed in oil introduces a sharp, nutty taste to the base of the dish, which is richened with tomato sauce, then speckled with piquant capers and black olives, which give it a sweet brine. Three strong flavors are competing for attention on the palate—anchovies, olives, and capers—so restraining each is essential (so is avoiding salt altogether: there's plenty of it in the ingredients already). The taste should be vibrant, yet smooth, the epitome of balance. A tip on Chowhound recommends the rule of halves, which worked perfectly when I used it: Start with a full amount of olives (say 1/2 cup per pound of pasta) then use half the capers, and half again as many anchovies as capers. Most recipes call for a can of whole tomatoes, which is the simplest and fastest option, but a little homemade frozen tomato sauce is even better. I had some of Batali's Basic Tomato Sauce on hand, which added instant depth. Parsley can also be added for freshness, but i don't find it necessary—I like the silky texture without it.

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