Puttanesca is a pasta sauce with attitude. Most home cooks buy this lusty sauce by the jar or know it as restaurant fare – a slow-cooked tomato sauce with garlic, red pepper flakes, anchovies, capers, and black olives tossed with spaghetti. But those of us familiar with puttanesca are often disappointed. Chock -full of high-impact ingredients, puttenesca is often overpowered by one flavor; it is too fishy, too garlicky, too briny, or just plan salty and acidic. It can also be unduly heavy and stew-like, or dull and monochromatic. I was searching for a simple, satisfying sauce with aggressive but well-balanced flavors.
I started by tossing all the ingredients – minced garlic, minced olives, whole capers, minced anchovies, and red pepper flakes – into a base of canned tomatoes and simmering the lot for 25 minutes. The result was a dull sauce with undeveloped flavors. My first revision began with sautéing the garlic in olive oil to deepen the garlic flavor, but as I found out, the garlic should not be allowed to brown; when it did, the sauce quickly became bitter. To rectify the problem, I mixed a bit of water with the garlic before it went into the pan. The water slowed the cooking, making the garlic less likely to brown and burn.
Deciding how to prepare and cook the olives was the next task. I decided to toss coarsely chopped onions into the sauce at the very last minute, allowing the residual heat of the tomatoes to warm them. This preserved their flavor, their texture, and their independence. As for which olives worked best, I started with Neapolitan Gaeta olives – small, black, earthy, and herbaceous. For good measure, I also tested Alphonso, Kalamata, and canned black olives in place of the Gaetas. My family did not like the canned black olives but loved both the Alphonso and Kalamata olives.
Capers were the least of my worries. Of all the ingredients, they were the most resilient, well able to retain their shape, texture, and flavor. Rinsing them thoroughly, whether salt – or brine-cured, and adding them at the end of cooking along with the olives proved best.
Up to this point, the anchovies in the sauce, added along with the tomatoes to simmer, tasted flat and salty and gave the sauce a funky, fishy taste. I tried mashing whole fillets into the oil with a fork and found the process tedious and ineffective; stray chunks were left behind and inevitably ended up offending my anchovy-sensitive husband. What worked best was mincing the anchovies to a fine paste and adding them to the oil in the pan with the garlic. In two or three minutes the anchovies melted into the oil on their own (no fork necessary), and their characteristically fill, rich flavor blossomed.
Blooming an ingredient in oil is a technique often used to develop flavor. Because it worked so well with the garlic and anchovies, I decided to try it with the red pepper flakes instead of simmering them with the tomatoes. As they cooked with the garlic and anchovies, their flavor permeated the oil.
As for the tomatoes, I tested crushed tomatoes, canned whole tomatoes, and fresh. The canned diced tomatoes were the winner. They had a sweet flavor and clung nicely to the pasta.
One last discovery improved the sauce still further. On a whim, I decided to toss some of the drained tomato juice to keep the sauce from drying out. This gave the sauce a brighter, livelier flavor.
For my complete recipe for Spaghetti Puttanesca, please click HERE