Spaghetti alla Puttanesca (and an Ode to Olives)
My dad hates olives. He hates them so much that whenever we bring them to the table he’ll put a hand over his nose and, in the most dramatic way, scream: “Take them away!!Take them away!!”. His aversion to olives has become such a family joke that, whenever we have big get-togethers, someone will slide a plate of olives right under my dad’s nose just to annoy him.
By contrast, we (as in, literally everyone else in Sicily) love them. Farmers’ markets and grocers have stands entirely dedicated to olives - green, black, pickled, fried, baked, spicy, lemony, stuffed, pitted…you name it - and you’ll be able to smell it from afar!
I could literally eat olives ALL.THE.TIME, and I kid you not, it’s my favourite ingredient in the world. As a matter of fact, “olives and bread” is my answer to the question “if you could only eat one thing for the rest of your life what would it be”.
So clearly, Puttanesca sauce has got to be one of my favourite.
Spaghetti alla Puttanesca is a dish created in the mid-20th century that has risen to international popularity in recent times. The sauce, with slight regional variations, comprises tomatoes, olives, capers, and garlic; these ingredients are thrown together and served with spaghetti.
While its birthplace is considered to be Naples. it appears that various recipes in Italian cookbooks dating back to the early 19th century described pasta sauces very similar to the modern puttanesca, and from different parts of Southern Italy, particularly the regions of Campania, Sicily.
Because of its name - literally meaning "the prostitute's spaghetti" - there is a theory according to which the dish was invented in one of the many brothels in Naples' Quartieri Spagnoli (Spanish quarters).
But actually, earlier gastronomic literature already mentioned what was referred to as the Neapolitan spaghetti alla partenopea (which added oregano and anchovies to the basic tomato-olives-capers sauce), and the Sicilian spaghetti alla siciliana (which was characterised by the addition of green peppers). Still again, there is a Sicilian style popular around Palermo that even includes raisins to the sauce - an ingredient that is added to many recipes in western Sicily, where the Arab influences are much stronger.
You may be wondering why I'm here giving you this unrequested history lesson, right?? ...well, it's because I took what I liked the most from each version and came up with my own incarnation of Puttanesca - it's spicy, it's vegan, it's chunky, and I promise you are going to love it!
Ingredient (for 2)
200g spaghetti (I like to use wholewheat spaghetti in this recipe as it give the dish even more texture)
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic
1-2 fresh red chillies, sliced lengthwise (adjust according to your heat tolerance, remove the seeds for a milder version)
1 tbsp capers in brine, rinsed
80g pitted mixed green and black olives
1 medium green pepper (capsicum) diced small
A handful of raisins
Tomato passata (or pureed tomatoes)
Toasted breadcrumbs to garnish (optional)
1 tsp sugar
Salt to taste
Heat up the olive oil in a heavy bottom pan and add the garlic. We like to add the garlic "in camicia" (lit. "with its shirt on"), meaning we lightly crush it with a knife without removing its skin and add it whole to the pan, so it will flavour the oil and will be discarded at the end. If you prefer, you can peel and mince or slice your cloves, of course.
Sauté for 30 seconds, then add the chopped red chillies and let it sizzle for another 30 seconds.
Next, we add the capers - make sure to rinse them if they are in brine, or they'll be too salty - one finely chopped green capsicum, season with salt and sauté for another minute. Add the raisins, after lowering the flame a little, making sure not to burn them. Allow them to plump up.
Now it's time add the tomato sauce. I use passata in this case, which is made from tomatoes that are pureed very smooth. You can use store-bought bottled or canned tomato sauce, or puree 2 medium tomatoes, if they are in season, to very smooth. Best to pass them through a sieve once pureed to remove skins and seeds.
Mix well, season with sugar, add the olives and half a ladle of water. Cover with a lid, and let the sauce cook on medium-low for about 12-15 minutes or until the sauce has thickened and the oil has started to separate. Check and stir occasionally during this time and, if you notice the sauce is too thick, add a splash of water and make sure it's not sticking to the bottom.
In the meantime, make your pasta.
Bring one large pot of water to a boil and add salt. Drop in the spaghetti - without breaking them - and cook to al dente, according to the packaging. When the pasta is 2 minutes short from being done, transfer it to the saucepan (never vice versa!) using thongs or a slotted spoon. Add a few splashes of pasta cooking water to the sauce and mix really well until the pasta is well coated.
Before serving, top with lightly toasted breadcrumbs. This last step is optional, but I highly recommend it. Using breadcrumbs instead of grated cheese is a tradition from the so-called "cucina povera" (peasant cuisine) that came about form families who were too poor to afford cheese and would use breadcrumbs instead.
This tradition is still very much alive in Sicily and has become a characteristic of many dishes. fine breadcrumbs are toasted in a little olive oil until they brown and then stored in a jar in the fridge and added daily to many pasta dishes. They add a wonderful texture to the dish and make it even more delicious.