Italian pantry staples and a recipe for spaghetti alla puttanesca

I used to be quite an impulsive food shopper at my local market in Corso Brunelleschi, attracted by all that was rare and unusual. Perhaps the most extreme example comes from one Saturday morning almost ten years ago, when, one autumn morning, I bought some bulbous quinces there without actually knowing how to cook them. I still remember the sceptical tone of the vendor’s voice as he sold them to me: “Non sono comestibili crude. Devi cucinarle prima di mangiarle (They’re not edible raw. You need to cook them before eating them).” Undeterred, I got home and promptly googled cooking with quinces. Call it beginners luck but I ended up making a perfectly decent Sicilian quince paste or cotognata that very afternoon.

With the ongoing COVID 19 national lockdown,* serendipitous impulse buys just aren’t happening right now. Instead, TP and I are now carefully planning our food shopping, something I haven’t been particularly disciplined about in the past. We’ve come up with a weekly menu, and I’ve found that is helping us immensely with our online orders to one of the local supermarkets and the WhatsApp messages we send to Paolo, our butcher, for meat, and Pier and Marco, two favourite vendors from the market, for prompt pick-ups of meat, fruit and vegetables.

My most recent post was more along the lines of weekend cooking project. I love and look forward to occasions when I have time to devote to these. Lately, that’s been a lot. But I’ve always had a soft spot for last-minute, raid-the-pantry, empty-the-fridge kind of dishes too. Here’s a recipe for one favourite. Oh, and another. I also know that I’m fortunate enough to be able to bring the ingredients we have into our home. This has led to a refound appreciation for the contents of our kitchen pantry, ones that nearly always feature in a typical Italian household. One pasta dish that’s been featuring regularly on our weekly menu, Neapolitan spaghetti alla puttanesca, brings several favourite Italian pantry staples together in a remarkably simple yet tasty way.

First, there’s the extra virgin olive oil that I use to cook the dish – and just about everything else I cook – with. We currently have a large batch in our pantry sourced from a trusted contact in the southern region of Puglia. Piedmont, the region I live in in Italy, does not have an olive oil making tradition like those of other Italian regions, so TP and I always make a point of sourcing this liquid gold from producers elsewhere in Italy. I really don’t want to sound too picky during times of crisis but if buying directly from a producer is not practical for you, and you are in a financial position to support Italian small businesses and quality producers, I do encourage you to read the labels of the bottles you find when shopping carefully. When was it made? Where was it made? Which variety of olives were used to make it? Is there a guarantee of origin (IGP or DOP)? Generally speaking, the more specific the designations are regarding provenance or olive cultivar, the better.

Then there are the spaghetti that are traditionally paired with alla puttanesca. Spaghetti are by far our family’s favourite pasta shape, so our pantry is always well stocked in packages of it. When buying packaged pasta, I never pay attention to the brand. Instead, I check the fine print carefully. First of all, dried pasta should only be made with durum wheat and water. Secondly, I look for the label trafilata/o al bronzo, which means ‘bronze-die’. Bronze dies are considered the best for extrusion and result in a pasta with a rougher texture and a greater surface area. Another good indicator of a quality pasta is the cooking time on the package and the label lenta essiccazione, meaning ‘slow drying’. Big industry uses blast drying, which is hot and fast. This has the effect of pre-cooking the pasta to some extent. Smaller, semi-artisanal producers, and the occasional larger manufacturer with a commitment to quality, use lower temperatures to dry their pasta, which results in longer cooking times, up to twenty minutes on occasion. These pastas, however, will taste better, with a wheat flavour that really comes through.

No self-respecting Italian home cook can do without the tomatoes called for in a plateful of spaghetti alla puttanesca either. Soft, ripe, vermillon red pomodori can be used to make this humble condimento and other glistening sauces in summer. Out of season though, Italians generally rely on canned peeled tomatoes or late summer tomatoes they’ve put up in jars for the winter. I have an entire shelf in my kitchen pantry devoted to just these. Please, please, don’t be tempted by those bland specimens grown year-round in seasonless greenhouses!

I know they can divide crowds among some foreigners but it’s impossible for me to imagine Italian cuisine without the preserved anchovies that feature prominently in so many of the country’s dishes, including spaghetti alla puttanesca. By all means, omit them if you’re convinced you hate them or replace them with less offensive but bland canned tuna if that’s what you honestly prefer. It’s the irresistible umami contrast between the salty anchovies and the sweet tomato base that makes this pasta dish so satisfying though. In pre-lockdown days, my general preference was to buy salt-packed anchovies from a vendor at the market. Lately though, I’ve been ordering good oil-packed ones from the Cantabrian Sea off northern Spain (many Italians consider these anchovies to be the bees’ knees, funnily enough!) and we’ve been happy with the results. If you’re able to get your hands on salt-packed ones, you’ll need to remove the excess salt and fillet them before cooking. If you have oil-packed ones, they’ll have already been filletted but you’ll still need to drain them beforehand. Instructions for preparing both types are included in the recipe below.

Then there are the olives we love and constantly stock our pantry with. Spaghetti alla puttanesca is generally made with Gaeta olives, a cultivar typical of the Lazio region which borders Campania. Gaeta olives are harder to come by here in Turin so our pantry is nearly always stocked with jars of pitted Taggiasca olives, which are grown in landlocked Piedmont’s coastal neighbour to its south, Liguria. Not authentic, but these tasty, oval-shaped specimens work perfectly fine in this dish too as far as I’m concerned. Feel free to use whatever quality olives you can get your hands on in this case.

We love capers too and there are always several jarfuls of salt-packed capers in our pantry to make a salsa tonnata for vitello tonnato, to top a homemade pizza and, of course, to make this plateful of spaghetti. Hanging caper plants can be found growing all over Italy, even on the Aurelian walls of Rome apparently. The best though come from the islands off Sicily, such as Pantelleria, Favignana, Salina and Stromboli.

Garlic is also used to infuse the cooking oil of puttanesca. In spring, I normally try to source aglio nuovo or new garlic as much as possible. When this isn’t available, I nearly always remove the green sprouts inside their cloves and refrain from chopping my garlic finely. TP, like many Italians, has quite an ambivalent relationship with this humble allium and nearly always instructs me to temper its pungency as much as possible. Mince away though if you want a stronger flavour.

There’s also the chilli that gives this dish its distinctive piquancy. Ideally, you’d have a fresh or dried whole chilli to infuse your oil while cooking. In previous years, I’ve grown chilli plants on my balcony garden and this has been possible. This year, for obvious reasons, I’ve yet to get my hands on a plant so far. For that reason, you’ll notice the jar of powdered chilli in my photos. If this is all you have, that’s fine, but don’t add it while cooking. Use it to season when serving instead.

Do forgive me, but I just can’t resist a concluding aside about this dish’s curiously lusty name which literally translates as ‘spaghetti prostitute style’. Naturally, many an entertaining food myth has been invented to describe its origins. As Oretta Zanini de Vita and Maureen B Fant, authors of  Sauces and Shapes: Pasta the Italian Way,  point out though, the term puttanesca can refer to anything that is that is squalid, sordid and poor, like the rougher neighbourhoods of Naples where prostitutes supposedly used to whip up this dish between servicing clients. They think ‘quick and dirty spaghetti’ might be the best translation. I’m inclined to agree, especially on a weeknight after a long day, even in homebound in lockdown, after entertaining the two Miss Cs all day. This is a dish that brings some of the humblest of Italian pantry essentials together, in a fast, no-fuss but incredibly flavourful and satisifying way. I do hope you enjoy a plateful of alla puttanesca as much as my family have come to as well.

Ingredients

  • 3 salt-packed anchovies (or 6 oil-packed anchovy fillets)
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 60 g extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 fresh or dried chilli
  • 1 tin peeled tomatoes, drained of excess liquid and roughly chopped
  • a generous handful of salt-packed capers, rinsed free of all salt and coarsely chopped
  • a generous handful of pitted black olives, drained of preserving brine or oil and coarsely chopped
  • 400-500 g spaghetti

Method

If using salt-packed anchovies, soak in a bowl filled with cold water for about 10 minutes. Remove and drain on a plate lined with paper towels. Starting from the tail, split the anchovies into two and remove their spine. You now have 6 fillets. If using oil-packed anchovies, lay on a plate lined with paper towels to drain of excess oil. Chop your six anchovy fillets finely.

Peel the garlic cloves, cut in half and, if present, remove the green shoots inside. For a stronger flavour, mince. For a less pungent note, leave in halves.

Pour olive oil into a wide saucepan and add the garlic, anchovies and the whole chilli. Heat gently over very low heat until the anchovies have almost completely rendered and garlic begins releasing its aroma, about 2 to 3 minutes. Add the tomatoes, capers and olives to the pan, letting the flavours blend over low to medium heat for about 10 minutes.

Meanwhile bring 5 litres of water to boil over high heat. Add 45 g of coarse sea salt (yes, you need this amount of salt when cooking this amount of pasta!) then add the spaghetti and cook, stirring occasionally, until the pasta is al dente.

Drain the spaghetti, reserving a ladleful of the pasta cooking water. Transfer pasta to saucepan with the simmering puttanesca sauce. Toss spaghetti and the sauce over low heat for a minute. If the sauce needs loosening, add some of the reserved pasta cooking water. Transfer to a warmed serving bowl or platter. Toss with the puttanesca sauce, some of the reserved pasta cooking water (if the sauce needs loosening) and a little more olive oil. Turn off heat. Serve immediately in warmed bowls or a large serving dish.

* On Sunday 26th April, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announced the government’s plans for Phase 2 or the easing of lockdown it imposed over seven weeks ago. As of Monday 4th May, measures outlined in this article by the BBC and this article by The Local Italy will be implemented.

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