Pasta Puttanesca

Please welcome Hank as he shares his favorite pasta puttanesca, made with pantry staples! ~Elise

Of all the dishes I’ve cooked over the years, pasta puttanesca holds a special place in my heart. I’ve been making it regularly since the late 1980s, when I was a freshman in the dorms at SUNY Stony Brook. Puttanesca was the first “adult” meal I ever cooked by myself for myself; I’d done clunky versions of traditional “date night” dishes for girls before that, but this simple pasta sauce was my go-to meal after long, long days at track practice.

It is the quintessential “I’m tired” meal, as puttanesca is almost entirely made up of pantry staples: canned tomato paste and crushed tomatoes, canned anchovies, jarred olives and capers. The only chopping required is a little bit of onion and as much garlic and parsley as you want. You turn the water on to cook the spaghetti, and by the time the pasta is cooked the sauce is ready. Done and drinking beer (or doing homework) in 30 minutes.

It was only later that I learned the origins of this sauce. I’d made it for a female friend who was Italian, and she said, “Oh, harlot’s sauce.” I might have snickered. She explained that the legend of this sauce was that it easy to prepare for anyone who works when markets were closed — and ladies of the evening certainly fit that bill.

So do newspaper reporters. In the years I worked as a journalist, working past 9 p.m. was the norm, not the exception. Puttanesca was always there for me when I got home, however, and in a half an hour I could throw myself down in front of the TV, watch ESPN or somesuch, and eat a home-cooked meal. All these years later, I still make puttanesca whenever I am tired or stressed. It’s one old habit I never want to break.

Pasta Puttanesca Recipe

  • Prep time: 10 minutes
  • Cook time: 30 minutes
  • Yield: Serves 4-6.

Spaghetti is the normal pasta for this recipe, but any kind of pasta will be fine.

Ingredients

  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1/2 cup minced onion
  • 3 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 3-4 canned anchovies, chopped
  • 2 Tbsp tomato paste
  • 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
  • 2 teaspoons dried oregano
  • 2 Tbsp small (non-pariel) capers
  • 3/4 cup pitted olives (black or green), roughly chopped
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
  • 1 pound spaghetti
  • Salt
  • Olive oil for drizzling

Method

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1 Heat the olive oil over medium-high heat in a large, deep saute pan. When the oil is hot, sauté the onions until they're soft and translucent, about 4-5 minutes. While the onions are cooking, stir in the chopped anchovies along with some of the oil from the can. Add the garlic and cook another minute.

pasta-puttanesca-3 pasta-puttanesca-4

2 Mix in the tomato paste  and cook it for 2 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the crushed tomatoes, oregano, chili pepper flakes, and olives. Turn the heat down to a gentle simmer.

3 Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. When you add the spaghetti to the boiling water to cook, add the capers to the sauce and continue to simmer it gently. Cook the pasta according to the package instructions, to al dente, cooked but still slightly firm.

4 Drain the pasta and put in a large bowl. Drizzle a little olive oil over the pasta and mix to combine. Stir the parsley into the pasta sauce. Add a ladle's worth of sauce to the pasta and mix to combine. Serve in shallow bowls with more sauce on top.

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Links:

Shrimp Puttanesca, from TasteFood

Gnocchi with Puttanesca, from Sassy Radish

Pizza Puttanesca, from Local Lemons

Pasta Puttanesca on Simply Recipes

37 Comments

  1. Katherine @ our peas + carrots

    This is a lovely version! Don’t ever feel guilty about making “harlot’s sauce” … just think what other people might make when they want to “throw something together” – mac and cheese from a box or frozen chicken tenders (not that I’ve never done that, no siree…!). I’d celebrate with this! (Especially if I could cheat with anchovy paste instead of the tinned variety, oy.)

  2. yb

    I’m eating this now and it’s pretty tasty! Thanks for the recipe.

    A quick question: the ingredient list calls for parsley and red pepper flakes — where in the recipe do we add these?

    • Elise

      Hi YB, put the chili pepper flakes into the sauce in step 2 and the parsley right before serving. We’ve adjusted the recipe.

  3. sara

    Mmmm, this looks totally fantastic! I love anchovies in pasta sauces…so delicious!

  4. Veronica

    I’ve been making this Pasta for years and I make it a little differently..I don’t use onions, tomato paste or oregano. I use the crushed tomatoes, fresh tomatoes, fresh basil and yellow, red or orange peppers chopped; all other ingredients are the same though and instead of spaghetti, I use either a rotelli, penne, or ziti type pasta. It’s one of the best pasta’s around. I’ve also tried this same sauce with grilled salmon instead of anchovy and it’s very yummy too. You’ve got to have hot crusty bread with it to mop up the sauce…yum yum.

  5. ib

    Maybe the name: harlot’s sauce comes from this:

    The word puta means ‘prostitute’ or ‘whore’ in Spanish, but it has stronger connotations than the equivalent in English does. It also combines to form some common and potentially offensive phrases, so it’s a word you must know if you’re going to master Spanish.

  6. Ashley

    This sounds fantastic…I love a meal that doesn’t take a ton of planning and fancy ingredients every now and then!

  7. Søren Welling

    By chance I’ve just been making this today and last week, from another (but authentic Italian) recipe. Which is quite different, for starters instead of letting it simmer for a while, you blast it at high heat for a couple of minutes. The ingredients are simpler and includes red wine. I love it because it’s an easy and quite powerful sauce.

    In this variation you use:
    Garlic
    Oil
    Capers
    Dried chili
    Black Olives
    Whole Canned Tomatoes
    A Glass of Red wine

    In a frying pan.
    You slice the garlic, throw it in the hot oil until golden – then you add the olives and the capers (which you can slightly crush in your hand) – let it simmer for a few minutes, then add the red wine and a can of tomatoes.
    You boil it on full heat for just a few minutes, and serve it with boiled pasta with lots of Parmesan or another hard cheese.

  8. Alison

    I’m glad I stopped by for this one; great story! And my kind of recipe, too – quick and easy! Only pity is the hubby doesn’t like anchovies…

    • Michelle

      I’ve been making pretty much the identical dinner for years but instead of anchovies I use canned tuna. Not sure if your hubby would go for that, but my whole family loves it. And tuna is something we always have in the pantry so I make this when I forget/don’t have time to go grocery shopping.

    • Hank Shaw

      Hey Alison, I’ve made puttanesca a zillion times without the anchovy and it’s fine, so you can leave it out; you may need to add some salt then.

      • lynn

        Welcome Hank.

        Alison, if you don’t tell him he will never know! I serve this dish to people who claim to not like anchovies all the time, no harm, no foul

  9. Caroline @ Pink Basil

    I love pasta puttanesca and I agree it is the BEST “I’m tired/feeling lazy” meal :)

  10. Alison

    This sounds fantastic! I’ve saved this recipe now and I hope to make it soon. I’m always looking for easy pasta recipes and this one fits the bill. :)

  11. sylviane santi

    similar to the italian, we don’t put onion and just crushed tomatoes but it’s up to everyone’s tastes of course.
    Another easy and quick pasta dish is ‘spaghetti carbonara’ which was my best ‘dish’ in th 80′s when I was in Atlanta.

  12. Teresa

    This looks terrific! Can’t wait to try it, will have to make for the family this weekend!

  13. Kelly Senyei

    This looks wonderful, Hank! It reminds me of the dish I always turn to, time and time again, penne vodka. Can’t wait to try your recipe!

  14. Sues

    I love the thought of coming home after a long day of work and whipping this up in a jiffy :) Looks awesome!

  15. Kitty

    This does sound deliciously quick and easy. Any suggestions for a vegetarian-friendly option to the anchovies?

  16. Helana Brigman

    This looks amazing, can’t wait to try this recipe.

  17. Alicia@ eco friendly homemaking

    Oh this looks so delicious!!

  18. Jayne

    Your story about the sauce is so amusing. haha… These are the kinds of food everyone should have under their belts. For times when hunger outweighs effort. I have a couple of emergency recipes and thank God they are easy and even tasty.

  19. Jaina

    Been looking for a quick alternative to my usual tomato sauce with oregano pasta meal and this looks like it. Going to give this a try soon – looks perfect for the cold weather too. Hearty!

  20. Larry

    Great recipe! Don’t forget to add the capers. I used a 28oz. can of diced tomatoes with herbs and garlic and added a splash of red Italian wine. WoW!

  21. reen

    Outstanding! Any excuse to eat anchovies is a winner in my book.

  22. ReenB

    This was lovely, easy, tasty and I could exercise my habit of not measuring anything. :) Kids gobbled it up, as they love olives and capers, and I got to indulge my fondness for anchovies. We used fire-roasted tomatoes and added some basil, and then some parmesan on the top when it was done.

    Kudos!

  23. Barbara

    Thanks Hank! This was amazing. All the ingredients blended perfectly into a flavorful, rich sauce. My husband loved it and he wouldn’t touch an anchovy with a ten foot pole. I’m not a big salt user and thought it was a little salty for me so I didn’t salt the pasta water and it worked out fine. This will be a keeper!

  24. Marcia

    An Italian lady informed me years ago that this sauce is so named because of the quickness of it’s preparation. The ladies needed to eat fast and get back to work, she said. I have always made this with 1/2 cup olive oil and no tomato paste. It’s quite oily and typically I eat it with capellini. I look forward to trying your version, Hank. Thanks!

  25. Marcia

    Oh dear, I forgot my question. Do you drain the canned tomatoes? Thanks.

    • Hank Shaw

      Marcia: I don’t drain them, because I use crushed tomatoes mostly. If you use whole peeled tomatoes, use the whole can and just cook it down a little longer.

  26. George

    This looks realy easy,simple and delicious and I always have these ingredients.

  27. Jim Gauntt

    We add to most recipes and this is what we liked best after delving into this fabulous dish. It may be too bold for some palates but if you are into big flavors try these tweaks and let me know what you think:

    In a blender puree (work in two batches if necessary):
    3-14oz. cans Hunt’s diced tomatoes (Basil, Garlic, Oregano flavor– no salt added).
    1-can no sodium/organic tomato paste
    1 cup no sodium chicken broth
    ½ cup vodka (optional but really good)
    Dash or three of Worchester sauce

    To the above for texture and flavor:
    Add 1-small jar sundried tomatoes (drained) – roughly chopped in the blender mix.

    In a very large sauce skillet or sauce pot (at least 3.5 quart) sauté in EVOO:
    1-medium to large white or mild onion diced (don’t brown just sweat to remove moisture and soften)
    ½ cup red or yellow bell pepper (optional)

    Add above tomato mixture to taste:
    4-8 cloves of pressed garlic
    1-2 tablespoons capers (drained)
    4-8 anchovy fillets minced (or equivalent in anchovy paste, 1-3 tsps, to taste)
    1-full tsp. crushed red pepper flakes (this amount is perfect for this size recipe)

    Then lightly coat the top of the skillet/pot with (then stir in):
    Penzey’s Tuscan Sunset Italian salt free seasoning mix or dry oregano, basil, thyme combo
    (using fresh or combining dry and fresh ok too)

    Then add to taste and your desire:
    1-small can mushroom pieces – if using fresh add to sauté above to lightly soften
    ½ to ¾ cup black or kalamata olives
    1-small jar artichoke hearts
    ½ to 1 cup fine chopped fresh parsley (flat leaf also ok) add ½+ cup to sauce – reserve balance for garnish
    Pinch sugar (optional)
    Baby spinach one cup de-stemmed added at the very last 1-2 minutes (to wilt only)
    Black pepper a few grinds
    No salt needed (capers and other ingredients add the right amount of saltiness), but if you must just a pinch

  28. Sarah

    Hah, and I heard the dish was named after ladies of the evening because the intense aroma of the ingredients cooking would waft out onto the street and attract customers!
    I’m just starting to appreciate the taste of olives (already like capers and anchovies), so I may give this a try.

  29. Marianne

    Thanks for a great recipe. And the beautiful plate is Arabia design from 1960′s, isn’t it?

  30. Tamara

    This was delish as written! I did, however, add a splash of vino :)
    Thank you!

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