Monday, March 22, 2010

Pasta alla Puttanesca with (or without) Shrimp

I am making a concerted effort to put some great vegetarian recipes together for all kinds of reasons—health, being eco-friendly and just giving us all more options for terrific meals. Recently, a fellow member of my Food Writer’s Boot Camp went to a lot of trouble to send me a great vegetarian main dish which I am working on sharing with you soon.  But it the meantime, this recipe, which came out of the February/March “Fine Cooking”, is a fantastic discovery.  You can satisfy your vegetarian eaters and/or you can take it to another level by adding some shrimp in the last few minutes.  So one dish can be served two ways—at the same seating.  It’s perfect for families where increasingly there’s a vegetarian at the table. 

“Puttanesca” is a famous pasta sauce with a bawdy back story that may not be altogether true.  “Putta” means ‘whore’ in Italian and “Puttanesca” means in the style of the whore.   I’d always heard that Roman street prostitutes threw this together between assignations.  However, doing some poking around for this post, I found a couple of other suggestions as to its origins.  First of all, it’s relatively new and didn’t appear in the vocabulary of Italian cuisine until 1961!  And forget about Rome, Sicily and Naples get more credit for the sauce although not by the same name.  “Not the same name” but the same sauce…now really, fellas.             
But there’s another intriguing story that I found very plausible. According to Annarita Cuomo, writer for Il Golfo, a newspaper serving the Italian islands of Ischia and Procida,  Puttanesca sauce was invented in the 1950s by Sandro Petti, co-owner of Rancio Fellone, a famous Ischian restaurant and nightspot.  The moment of inspiration came, according to Cuomo, when near closing one evening, Petti found a group of hungry friends sitting at one of his tables. Petti was low on ingredients and told them he didn't have enough to make them a meal. They complained that it was late and they were hungry. "Facci una puttanata qualsiasi" or “make any kind of garbage,” they insisted. (In this usage, puttanata is a noun meaning something worthless or something easy to prepare even though it derives from the Italian word for whore, puttana.) At the time, Petti had nothing more than four tomatoes, two olives and some capers; the basic ingredients for the sauce.  “So I used them to make the sauce for the spaghetti,” Petti told Cuomo. Later, Petti included this dish on his menu as spaghetti alla puttanesca.
Now that you’ve had your Italian lesson for the day, enjoy this very easily prepared dish in about 30 minutes.  It’s great with or without the shrimp.  It’s also great with or without the black olives—although it’s not authentic without them.  However, in our house, black olives are off the menu.  So I made it without.  Here’s the recipe:

Recipe for Pasta Puttanesca with (or without) Shrimp
2 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil
2 large cloves garlic, smashed and peeled
1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
1 tsp. finely grated orange zest (from half a medium orange)
1/2 tsp. dried oregano
1/4 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
1/2 cup dry white wine
One 28-oz. can whole tomatoes, coarsely chopped, juice reserved
1/3 cup pitted Kalamata olives, rinsed and quartered
2 Tbs. capers, rinsed

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
8 oz. pasta—we used Rigatoni, but penne or any tubular pasta will work.
1 lb. jumbo shrimp, shelled and deveined
4  anchovies, finely chopped
1/2 cup grated Pecorino Romano
1/3 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

Heat the oil in a 12-inch skillet over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook until golden, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the onion, orange zest, oregano, and pepper flakes and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion is tender, 5 to 6 minutes. Add the wine and simmer until it has almost evaporated, about 2 minutes. Stir in the tomatoes and their juice, olives, and capers. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, reduce the heat to maintain a gentle simmer, and cook until the sauce has thickened, about 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the penne and cook until al dente. Drain well.
If serving the vegetarian version, toss 1 1/3 cups of pasta with ¾ cup of the sauce.  Sprinkle with one quarter of the cheese and parsley.

Add the shrimp and anchovies to the sauce in the skillet. Raise the heat to medium high and cook, stirring occasionally, until the shrimp are cooked through, 3 to 4 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.  Pour the pasta into the skillet and toss with the shrimp sauce. Divide the pasta evenly among bowls. Sprinkle with cheese and parsley.