As a longtime proponent of Meatless Monday, I'm often looking for interesting ways to serve meatless meals to my family. I make lots of bean- or veggie-based soups, egg dishes, salads and of course, pasta. I like to make my own pasta sauces sometimes, but I'm also perfectly happy to use prepared sauces, especially pesto, which can be hard to make from scratch in the off-season. When I do make a sauce, I like it to be simple and quick (obviously) but also fully-flavored, and that's why my homemade sauce is often made in the puttanesca style.
Have you eaten pasta puttanesca? It's one of my favorites. I had it for the first time in a tiny restaurant in Greenwich Village when I was 19 years old and it really stayed with me. The salty, spicy, tangy flavors are my favorite combination - it contains kalamata olives, capers, lots of garlic and a little bit of one special ingredient that I really want you to try if you haven't before - anchovy paste (a traditional puttanesca ingredient, the addition of which makes the sauce not quite meatless but pretty close). It's a thick, rustic-style sauce that I particularly love in wintertime.
Pasta puttanesca originated in the Campania region of Italy and is said to have a...salty background. The word puttanesca is derived from puttana, the Italian word for prostitute. As the story goes, the women would prepare simple pasta meals in between clients. Some say they would even put their fragrant sauce pots on the open windowsills to tempt men. Now, I know this isn't the kind of discussion you usually get 'round the old Thistlebear home, but this sauce is so tasty and easy to make that I think most of us can overlook its suspect origins.
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon anchovy paste
1 28-oz can crushed tomatoes
1/2 cup kalamata olives, pitted and sliced
1/4 cup capers in brine, drained
Spaghetti or other pasta
First, heat the oil in a medium saucepan with the garlic and crushed red pepper (you can use more or less red pepper, depending on your threshold for spiciness; I like to keep it relatively mild so the whole family can enjoy it). Cook over low heat until the garlic is slightly golden, then add the anchovy paste and stir it into the oil, cooking for another minute or two.
In case you aren't familiar with anchovy paste, here's mine. It comes in a small metal tube, usually packaged within a box. You may have to search a bit for it in the store; I've seen it near the canned fish sometimes, as well as near the imported and gourmet foods. It's a funny ingredient because it will smell a little fishy coming out of the tube but it doesn't taste fishy at all added to a recipe. It only tastes savory, nutty, salty...kind of mysterious. You can certainly use chopped anchovy fillets if you prefer, but I like anchovy paste. It's good for all kinds of recipes, very convenient, and a little goes a very long way. Now back to the sauce...
You can add the tomatoes to the pot once the anchovy paste has cooked a bit. While the tomatoes simmer, get the olives and capers ready. Sometimes I rinse the capers if they seem excessively salty in the jar, but usually I just drain them. I quarter the olives. I don't rinse them, though; I find that their brine enhances the flavors in the sauce.
Finally, stir the olives and capers into the tomatoes and let the sauce simmer a little longer, five minutes or so, to allow all the flavors to blend. You can add fresh herbs, or salt and pepper to taste, but I usually find the sauce to be plenty salty (if salt is a concern in your diet, you can certainly adapt the recipe, bearing in mind that olives and capers do tend to be high in sodium). Serve the sauce over hot cooked pasta with grated Parmesan. Mangia, ladies (and gents...tee hee).