Puttanesca Sauce

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When it comes to comforting meals, a bowl of pasta hits pretty high up on the list. But I’ve realized that the real joy is not the noodles – unless they’re homemade in which case, stand back – it’s the sauce. I will eat good homemade pasta sauce with a spoon. And by “good” and “homemade” that doesn’t necessarily mean bolognese which you have to slave over for hours. It can also mean puttanesca sauce which takes about a half an hour from the moment you open the first jar. Yes, jar.

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The Italian “pasta alla puttanesca” translates to “whore’s style pasta” or at least it comes from an Italian word for prostitute. I don’t know about the whore thing but this could certainly be called “partier’s pasta.” Leftover olives and roasted red peppers from a cocktail party? Use ‘em. Capers from that brunch you hosted? Throw ‘em in. Leftover wine? You know what to do with it.

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Traditionally, puttanesca is made with capers, olives, and anchovies but since when is this blog about adhering strictly to tradition? Those are what I had in the fridge (and that’s what reminded me to make this cause) but really puttanesca is a salty, briny, roughly chopped tomato sauce. Add salty, briny things (although probably not Vlassic pickles; little cornichons might work) and it will work just as well.

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If you’re making this sauce for a vegetarian it’s simple enough to just leave out the anchovies and poof – it’s a vegetarian sauce. But if your reason for leaving them out is “I don’t like anchovies.” My holiday wish is for you to try them. Just this once. Melted down in the sauce they aren’t fishy at all. And while we’re trying new things, let’s eat this sauce without the traditional pasta. You can take it slowly and sub in thin zucchini strips that are sauteed quickly in a hot pan (or half pasta, half zucchini; take baby steps) or really go for it and enjoy it shakshuka style by poaching an egg in the simmering sauce. Or just bowl, spoon, done.

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Puttanesca Sauce

Makes 4-6 generous servings of sauce, the way I like to eat it.

2-4 cloves garlic, finely chopped*
1 medium onion, cut into medium fine-dice, let’s say 1/4 inch squares
2-4 anchovies, finely chopped
2 tbs olive oil
3/4 cup olives, finely chopped**
2 tbs capers, finely chopped
1/4 cup roasted red pepper, finely chopped
1 tsp salt
1 tbs red chile flake
28 oz can diced tomatoes***

In a medium pot, add the garlic, onion, oil, and anchovies and put it on the stove over medium heat. Starting it cold means the garlic is less likely to burn before the onions have sweated a little. Add a pinch of salt (maybe 1/2 tsp) and cook until the onions are translucent and the anchovy has mostly or completely melted into the sauce, about five minutes.

Add the rest of the ingredients to the pot – the olives, capers, red peppers (or any substitutions you choose), chile flake, and tomatoes and turn the heat up to medium high. Bring the ingredients to a low boil (boil it for a few minutes if you’ve added wine or other alcohol) and then reduce the heat to low and let the pot simmer for 20 minutes or so. Taste to see if it needs salt (it may not since many of the ingredients are salty) and adjust the seasoning if you need to. Serve the sauce hot or at least warm.


* Almost all the ingredients in this sauce are “finely chopped” but what exactly does that mean? It means each bite should have a bit of each flavor in it which means the pieces should be fairly small. Since this sauce is going to simmer and many of the ingredients are already cooked, uniformity is not so important. Make sure the pieces are small enough to get a variety in each mouthful but not so small that you drive yourself crazy chopping.

** These are the measurements I used but if you have more capers and fewer olives, so be it. Roasted red pepper is not vital and could be replace by roasted eggplant or left out entirely. A half empty jar of cornichons, a few spoonfuls of mustard, or up to 1 cup of red wine (which I meant to add and forgot about) would also be welcome.

*** You could also use whole tomatoes here and break them up but I’d avoid crushed or pureed tomatoes in this case. Part of the charm of the sauce is rustic (i.e. chunky) texture which would lost with a more finely processed tomato.

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