Unfussy Fare

Pasta Puttanesca


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.


Crab Risotto


Tis the season for Dungeness crab in these parts. I got caught up in the excitment and bought four crabs on sale. My idea was to toss them on the table for our guests that night, and let the adults have at them with an assortment of pliers and nutcrackers and such. I’d provide melted butter and lemon juice. Easy, right? I thought it sounded novel and fun. My husband thought it sounded tedious and messy. He felt so strongly that he volunteered to pick the meat.  I jumped in for the novelty and fun…

Turns out it takes a long time to pick the meat out of four recalcitrant crabs. We didn’t have the right tools, or the right attitude. But after a spate of cracking and cussing and stabbing and picking, we ended up with a spectacular mountain of crab. (For the record, two crabs are more than enough for this recipe. You can also buy already-picked crab meat, if you promise not to complain about the cost. Picking crab is hard work.) Once I finished admiring our handiwork, I realized I had to come up with something crabbish to serve our friends, who were arriving imminently.

I’ve never even heard of crab risotto. But once I got the idea in my head, I couldn’t let it go. I pondered adding all sorts of other ingredients, but I ended up discarding most of them in the interest of simplicity. I didn’t want to get in the crab’s face with too much stuff. Crab has a subtle flavor that wants a delicate touch.

Never before have I made risotto without parmesan, but crab and parmesan don’t jibe to my way of thinking.  So I relied on butter for richness, because crab and butter are pretty much soul mates.  Lemon got an invitation to the rather exclusive party, too, because lemon is just that cool. Other than that, it was a mighty basic risotto, mostly just designed to build a suitable stage for the crab. Which it did beautifully, if I do say so.

My friend Sarah called in the midst of my “What exactly would a crab risotto look like?” moment. She suggested putting big bites of crab right on top of each serving. This made for a lovely presentation and a sumptuous first bite. She also had the bright idea to boil the shells for the risotto stock. But alas, I had already tossed them in a fit of pique. Next time I’ll do that. This time I used half chicken stock and half water and a few extra glugs of white wine. You could try fish stock or clam juice. Just taste as you go and don’t be afraid. You can switch to water if the flavor of your liquid is getting too strong. Risotto is very forgiving.

serves four

3 tablespoons olive oil
2 shallots, chopped fine (about 1/2 cup)
1 cup Arborio rice
1 cup white wine
4 cups  of stock made from boiling the crab shells (or substitute 2 cups of chicken stock and 2 cups of water…see last paragraph above)
3 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon lemon zest
¼ cup lemon juice
salt and pepper to taste
2 cups crab meat at room temperature, divided (one cup of the bigger bits, one cup of the smaller shreds)
¼ cup chopped parsley
¼ chopped green onion
4 lemon wedges

Heat olive oil over medium-high heat in a large pan.

Add rice and stir to coat it with oil. Saute rice for about two minutes.

Add shallots and sauté until soft, about three more minutes.

Add white wine and reduce heat to medium. Cook at a gentle simmer, stirring frequently, until the wine is almost completely absorbed.

Add stock a half-cup at a time. With each addition, stir occasionally until the liquid is almost absorbed. Then add another half cup. (You may not need the whole four cups. Taste the rice as you go. You want the grains to remain separate from one another and not get gloppy. Cook it just long enough that the rice no longer crunches when you bite it.) This process will take about 25 or 30 minutes.

Add the butter, lemon zest, and lemon juice. Stir until they are incorporated.

Remove the pan from the heat. Add the cup of small crab bits and stir gently. Taste for seasoning and add more salt, pepper, or lemon as needed.

Divide the risotto between four plates. Put a quarter cup of big crab bits atop each serving.

Sprinkle parsley and green onion on top, and serve with a lemon wedge.

Chocolate-Dipped Candied Orange Peel


Chocolate-dipped candied orange peel (also known as orangettes) are a lovely holiday confection. And this post is actually one big public service announcement.  I made all kinds of mistakes, so you don’t have to.  See how virtuous I am?

I’m afraid orangettes are fussy fare. I’m willing to make exceptions to my unfussy mandate in the interest of holiday cheer.

Last week, when I first developed a hankering for candied citrus peel, I scoured the web for recipes. They varied wildly from one another. I, of course, chose the quickest one. The one that didn’t entail blanching and re-blanching strips of peel before boiling them in sugar-water. What I got was a very pretty and very bitter batch of candied peel. Even coated in sugar, the bitterness lingered waaay too long. I love bitter, so believe me when I tell you it was too much.

Next I opted to make orangettes, figuring that the chocolate would counteract the bitterness in the orange peel. I also decided to blanch the peels three times, as several recipes recommend.  However, because I am impatient, I only let them boil for about five minutes each time. The recipes I read called for 10 or 15 minutes of boiling each time. The results are what you see pictured here. They were plenty tasty enough to eat, but still too bitter. I am a frantic hare who should really take a page from the tortoise’s book.

Bottom line, I learned some things that will inform my next batch, which I am confident will be perfect. The first thing I learned is that some instructions merit following. Oh wait, I already knew that. I just haven’t figured out how to discern which instructions merit following. So really, the first thing I learned is that I love The Joy of Cooking, by Irma Rombauer.

I had relegated The Joy of Cooking to my seldom-used pile of cookbooks. I thought it was dated, and not really my style. But upon closer inspection, it’s absolutely my style. The instructions are loose. I like that in a cookbook. Plus, there are recipes for cooking bear, woodchuck, and muskrat, which bespeaks a certain fearlessness in Irma. I admire that. But the main thing I like about The Joy of Cooking is that Irma validated my hunch that salt could effectively tame the bitterness of citrus peel.

You know how I’m hopelessly in love with preserved lemons, right? They are proof positive that salt removes bitterness from citrus peel. I wondered if a variation on that method could be applied here, without ending up with overly-salty candy. Irma Rombauer said yes. (I knew I liked her.)

The recipe below reflects my lessons learned. While I haven’t tried it yet, I feel confident enough to recommend it. I’m determined that I will not be defeated by candied citrus peel. Not after all the time I’ve spent making pretty, bitter little candies. I’ll keep you posted. Or better yet, you can keep me posted.



Four medium oranges (look for ones with thin peels)
2 cups sugar
4 ounces good bittersweet chocolate

Cut the top and bottom ends off the oranges. Cut the peel off the oranges in six sections, as close to peel edge as possible.

Cut peel sections in half lengthwise, so you can flatten them more easily, and remove as much pith as you can with a paring knife. Some pith will remain. Don’t worry about it.

Cut peel sections lengthwise into quarter-inch wide strips, as evenly as possible.

Place the peels in a non-reactive bowl with enough salt water to cover. (One teaspoon salt per cup of water.) Soak for at least 24 hours. Drain, rinse, and soak peel in fresh water for 20 minutes. Drain again.

Boil peel in fresh water for 20 minutes and drain again.

Mix two cups of sugar with two cups of water in a medium saucepan. Stir. Add peel. Bring to a boil, reduce heat until the mixture is just simmering. Simmer for 45 minutes.

Remove peels from syrup a few at a time using a fork, and put them on a rack to drip dry. (Put something under the rack to catch the drips.) Allow them to dry completely. (Overnight worked for me.)

Melt chocolate in a double boiler. (I use a metal bowl set on a saucepan of simmering water.)

Dip peel strips into melted chocolate. Place on parchment paper or wax paper to dry.

If you don’t want the chocolate, you can just roll the peels in powdered or granulated sugar instead.


Provençal Seafood Stew


If you try one recipe from this blog, let it be this Provencal Seafood Stew. It’s a wonder of elegant simplicity. The deep fragrance and perfectly balanced flavors deliver the goods with every mouthful. So frenchy and fabulous is this stew that one bite magically transports me to a sidewalk table at a French bistro, where my understated outfit is offset by the perfect scarf, earrings, and heels. (I have a rich fantasy life. I’ve never had a talent for accessorizing. How do Parisian women do it?)

Not only is this soup drop-dead delicious, it’s also a blue-ribbon work-night recipe. By this I mean your soup is done fifteen minutes from the time you start chopping the onion. I do not exaggerate. The stew is sort of a simple riff on bouillabaisse. (Bouillabaisse purists can just relax. I’m not saying it IS bouillabaisse, I’m just saying it borrows some of the complicated flavors to truly excellent effect.)

The only remotely fussy thing about this recipe is that it calls for two things you may not have on hand. Since I discovered this recipe many years ago, I am never without them. They keep. One is saffron. (It’s cheap at Trader Joe’s.) The other is Pernod, which is an anise-flavored liqueur.

Pernod is the key ingredient that elevates this soup into something really special. If you buy Pernod and don’t like this soup, I will personally refund your money. I’m kidding. But I am truly confident that you won’t regret your purchase, even if you’re not a fan of anise, and even if it seems excessive to buy a whole bottle of booze when the recipe calls for two tablespoons. This is one of those times in life when you must make a leap of faith. Trust me. Your taste buds will thank you. Your loved ones will thank you. Your neighbor who gets a whiff of the soup out the kitchen window will thank you.

I think this stew is best served with a baguette, a flowery French white wine, and a soft, smelly French cheese. And maybe a suave French waiter, if you’ve got one of those handy. You can substitute any kind of fish and shellfish you like. Mussels are a nice addition.

adapted from a recipe in Cuisine Rapide by Pierre Franey

3 tablespoons olive oil
½ cup finely chopped onion
½ cup finely chopped celery
2 teaspoons minced garlic
½ teaspoon saffron threads, crumbled
1 cup dry white wine
3 cups canned diced tomatoes, with their juice
½ teaspoon dried thyme
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 bay leaf
¾ pound snapper or other fish filet, cut into one-inch cubes
½ pound sea scallops, quartered or bay scallops, whole
2 tablespoons Pernod (or Ricard)
¼ cup chopped parsley
salt and pepper to taste

Heat olive oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add onion, celery, garlic and saffron and sauté for about three minutes.

Add wine, tomatoes, thyme, pepper flakes, and bay leaf. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a gentle simmer and cook for five minutes.

Add seafood. Cover and cook for five minutes.

Add Pernod and parsley. Add salt and pepper to taste.