Thursday evenings can be a little fraught at our usually-peaceful house. We’ve soldiered through most of our weekly obligations, and we’re getting tired. I want a few minutes of peace after work. (Seriously, is that too much to ask?) Edna, our standard poodle, wants a walk. She looks at me all askance. My five-year-old wants my attention, and he’ll stop at almost nothing to get it. My husband wants exercise, which helps him maintain his enviable even keel. God knows someone around here needs an even keel. So there we all are, wanting things we may or may not get. And we’re hungry.
Nights like this, when my patience is frayed and everybody wants something, I want simple comfort food. When I say comfort, I mean delicious, hearty, and warm. When I say simple, I mean just a few minutes of cooking, a few ingredients we have on hand, and not much chopping or clean-up. By this measure, Pasta Puttanesca may just be the perfect food. Puttanesca’s miraculous effort-to-flavor ratio has defused countless crabby Thursday dinners.
If you are squeamish about anchovies, I sympathize. I eat anchovies, but I eat everything. Even so, I’m a little leery of anchovy ambush. Anchovies can pack a punch. Plus, they look like hairy worms. But anchovy-haters, please believe me. The anchovy here is a subtle, salty undercurrent: heartening and perfect, like the smell of the ocean. Your innocent taste buds (who are just trying to remain civil on a testy Thursday evening, after all) will not be assaulted by giant stabs of fishiness. The anchovy dissolves and lingers, lending complexity to what would otherwise be merely a plucky tomato sauce. If you wonder what mysterious force drives you to lick your plate indecorously and demand seconds: It’s the anchovies.
I’ve made Puttanesca more than any other meal in my life, unless you count grilled cheese. My family never tires of it. Even my son (who pretty much subsists on fruit, nuts, and breakfast cereal) loves it. For him, I serve just the sauce-soaked noodles, doing my level best to avoid dishing up the dreaded “chunks” in the sauce. (You may fault me for indulging the no-chunk decree, but it’s a battle I choose not to fight. Life is short, and he comes by his strong opinions about food honestly.)
I’m not sure how to attribute this recipe. It’s as old as the Italian hills. I’ve seen many Puttanesca recipes. They all have pretty much the same ingredients. I’ve adapted this one quite a bit over the fifteen years since I first copied it from a book called 365 Ways to Cook Pasta, by Marie Simmons.
PASTA PUTTANESCA - serves four to six
(I usually halve the recipe and it’s more than enough for two adults and a picky five-year-old)
1 pound dried pasta
¼ cup olive oil
4 garlic cloves, minced
½ teaspoon hot red-pepper chili flakes
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 28-ounce can small-diced tomatoes, with juice
½ cup pitted Kalamata olives, chopped
4 teaspoons capers, rinsed
8 anchovy fillets (less than a two-ounce can), minced
½ cup parsley, chopped
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil for the pasta. Cook the pasta until it’s barely al dente. Reserve a half-cup of the pasta cooking liquid.
Meanwhile, heat olive oil over medium heat in a large skillet. Add garlic and chili flakes and sauté until the garlic is golden, about 30 seconds.
Add tomatoes, olives, capers, and oregano. Simmer gently for about ten minutes.
Add anchovies and parsley and simmer two or three more minutes.
Add pasta and reserved pasta water. Toss the pasta and sauce and heat for another minute or two.